Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Good Stories, According to C.S. Lewis

When it comes to writing about writing, nearly everyone has tried to define what makes a good story. Ever heard of Plato, Aristotle? Yep, they started it, and plenty of people have continued the trend.

Even C. S. Lewis.

Last fall, I reviewed a new collection of C. S. Lewis’s essays, Image and Imagination. I picked up the (Kindle) book again recently and ran across a section on the qualities which make a story great. He applies them particular to the book he’s reviewing, Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres.

Technically, this post should really be called “What Makes a Good Poem,” since that’s primarily what C.S. Lewis is talking about in his review, but he isn’t referring to the quality of the poetry. Instead, this is about what makes the language, story, and idea of the poem stand out. This isn’t about good poetry as defined by meter or rhyme, but good poetry and good storytelling that captures a reader’s attention and lingers in memory after the reader has finished.

Several years ago, I borrowed a couple of Charles Williams’s books from the library. I still remember very intense images from the books I read, but they were fairly dense reading and I didn’t make it to Taliessin Through Logres, unfortunately. I still want to go back and read it, especially after reading Lewis’s review. I suspect that I will get a lot more out of the poem after reading the analysis Lewis gives in this review.

Toward the end of the article, though, Lewis explains why he believes Taliessin stands out—and why he thinks it should take its place among other great poems.

So, here are Lewis’s four standards for declaring Taliessin a masterpiece. May they help you decide why you think a story is great—or even how well your own stories rank against Lewis’s scale of greatness:

  1. “The world into which this poem carries is emphatically not mine.”
  2. “Closely connected with the preceding point is the fact that the poem, once read, lays the images permanently on the mind.”
  3. “The total effect of the poetry is something more and better than any enumeration of its qualities would lead one to predict.”
  4. “If this poem is good at all it is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it. If you can’t get an orange, then a lemon or a grapefruit will give you a taste that has something in common with it. But if you can’t get a pineapple, then nothing else will even faintly put you in mind of it.”
With his first point, Lewis clarifies that the world he means is not a familiar, comfortable world. It’s not a world that he likes and visits because he’s familiar with it, but because the story has drawn him into a new world entirely. Plenty of people say they read because it introduces them to a world outside their experiences, because it broadens their horizons. I've never head before a distinction between books that help us feel comfortable and those which really do introduce us to new worlds.

With the last point, Lewis describes Taliessin as deep and disquieting, but adds that it left him with a sort of “shy, elusive laughter; angelic rather than elfin laughter.”

I often have trouble explaining why I like certain stories—sometimes it’s a particular character’s wittiness, or the vividness of the imagery—but sometimes it’s a feeling that the story leaves. It’s that last, irreducible piece of a story that gives it soul and makes it more than all the pieces which compose it. It's the final, indescribable essence of the story, which so many people have tried to capture in practice exercises and theories. In other words, it's the element which makes it a pineapple instead of an orange like so many other stories.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photo Studios & Puppies

This week, I again started something new and set up a homemade photo studio. I've wanted to work on my photography for a long time, and an excuse came up to play with it a little. This project hasn't helped me any with understanding aperture and shutter speed, but it has been fun to play with a new sort of creativity. 

And, in reading up on the process, I finally learned how to create a nice clean background for photos...tape a large sheet of paper to the wall and let it curve down across the floor. A single sheet of paper: background, foreground, wall and floor all in the same piece. Well, duh. 

No more horizontal lines running across the photo! I feel almost professional.

I might need to work on that glare in the background, though.

And I promise I'll get back to writing soon. The stories have been stirring--they just haven't emerged from their lair quite yet.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Firewall: Review

 Taryn Young, a top software developer for an important national-security project, is taking a vacation to go on her honeymoon. 

Just before she boards an airplane for her perfect, dream getaway, though, someone blows up the airport terminal. No one knows who is behind the attack or why. Taryn only knows that her dreams have fallen apart as she and her new husband become the main suspects in the attack.

A new release by Christian fiction author DiAnn Mills, Firewall starts off with a bang. Okay, that’s a bad cliché, but this is one of those ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ stories about national security, computer hackers, and terrorist plots.

I have to say I liked this story, mostly. It’s a thriller romance, a story of finding love in between the gun fights, as Taryn recovers from her initial shock and joins with FBI Special Agent Grayson Hall hunt for answers. Together, they have to track down the real villain behind the bombing before time runs out and Taryn’s special software turns into a Trojan horse.

I did struggle a bit with the story. Some of the details felt awkward, especially early on, when the plot focuses on Taryn’s job and the initial FBI investigation. A good part of the search involves program security and hacking, but nothing gets very technical, and non-technical readers won’t have a problem with any of it. The software development process seems too simplistic, but my problem there might be that I’m married to a software designer and get to hear about all the stages of development from time to time. (And, for the record, I don't really think either of the cover models look like the main characters.)

Apart from those details, though, Firewall has a lot of action, with plenty of narrow escapes, near misses, and revelations. Taryn’s search runs into a number of twists, including a big one at the end, but my favorite part was getting to know the characters and their determination to see things through.  I’d rank this as a fun, light summer read for anyone who likes romance with their action stories. 

[My thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me Kindle ARC of Firewall, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Celebrating July

Happy 4th of July to you!

I know—the 4th of July was last week, but it was a busy week, and I’m finishing some thoughts this week that I started a couple weeks ago. This is a slightly belated Independence Day post, but it's mostly about how important this month has become for me.

The 4th of July is a national holiday, commemorating the US's formation, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, freedom, fireworks, and summer barbecues. It’s my own celebration month as well, partly because of the number of family birthdays at this time of year, partly because I started blogging in mid-July.

Yes, I've been blogging for almost three years now. Another week will mark my first post a long, long time ago, back in 2011. That's just over 180 posts ago, with enough words to make a novel, more words than I've managed to write on any of my novels in that time. I’m hoping that part will change soon.

I actually created this blog on the 4th of July, however, while house/dog/cat sitting for a friend. That was the first year I spent the 4th of July away, or any major holiday actually, away from my family, and later that summer, I headed up to Alaska for the first time.

The year after that, while I was in Alaska for the second time, the 4th of July was the day I started a long-distance friendship with a special, extra-awesome guy.

Last year, I was just back from my honeymoon.

This year, as I'm looking back at those past anniversaries, I'm also watching a little munchkin who is already trying to go, see, do, taste everything. We've added a third to our family this year, and he might just inspire some children's stories along the way—something I wasn't ever planning to do.

I’m a fairly quiet person, so I'm not setting off fireworks, but I feel like I should—it’s all worth celebrating. I foresee some busy years ahead, with plenty of changes, surprises, blog posts, and missed deadlines. I’m hoping to make some deadlines as well, finish some projects, and have a lot more quiet celebrations with my family along the way.

What about you? What are you celebrating this month?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Squirrel Attack

I've been concerned about my lettuce plants for a while. First there was the lack of sun. Then there was the heat. Now it's the squirrels.

Yes, the squirrels. They’re back—or still here.

The squirrels were a lot quieter during the winter, but I notice them fairly frequently these days. It's great fun to watch them jump between the trees. I haven't seen any fall out of a tree this year, not yet. But sometimes when I see one girding up for the leap, I'll grab my camera and start recording…just in case.

Just last week, I glanced out the window and found a squirrel staring at me from the porch rail. 

He wasn't terribly interested in me, though. After a moment, he jumped down onto the porch and started rummaging through the pine needles. He had a peanut in his mouth—probably stole it from the neighbors upstairs—and he seemed to be trying to find a place to bury it.

Poor squirrel—we only had carpeting under our pine needles, nothing deep enough to hide a peanut. Still, that’s when I decided it might be time to sweep the pine needles off the porch.

The next day, a different squirrel showed up. How do I know? He was distinctly redder than the first one, as well as smaller. I’m just not sure whether the same squirrel showed up twice that day, or if I managed to spot Squirrels Two and Three relatively close together.

The squirrel (or squirrels) also seemed to be hunting about in the needles for a place to hide something.

A couple days ago, I did manage to sweep the porch, and the result looked so nice that I sat out there a couple times in the past week. Warm afternoons and a clean porch are great at encouraging me to go outside.

Unfortunately, when I went out on the porch today, I found one of my lettuce pots had been knocked over. A couple others had the dirt shoved around. It seems the squirrels are persistent, though maybe they decided to eat some greens with their peanuts this time.

Oh, well.

Actually, I had already spotted signs that my lettuce sprouts were trying to sprout flowers, instead of growing up into big lettuce. At least I still have green stuff other than moss growing on my porch. That's all that really matters.

That, and healthy squirrels who know when to eat their veggies.