When Insults Were Creative

My family and I have been on a old-movie trend the last few weeks - all the oldies but goodies that we haven't seen a long while. We rounded things off with Calamity Jane. The whole movie is great, but there's one scene in particular that is just hilarious. Calamity and Bill Hickok (who is actually her best friend, though you might not guess that from their exchange below) spend over two minutes singing insults at each other. And unlike today, where the most common form of insult is to swear at the person or string some swear words together and use them as an adjective, their insults were, well, take a look:

           In the summer, you're the winter;
           In the finger, you're the splinter;
           In the banquet, you're the stew; say,
           I can do without you!

           In the garden, you're the gopher;
           In the Levi's, you're the loafer;
           Like an overturned canoe, well--
           I can do without you!

          You can go to ... Philadelphia!
          Take a hack to Hackensack! Hey--
          I'll never ring a bell for ya,
         Or yell for ya to come back!

           In the question, you're the "why";
           In the ointment, you're the fly--

           Though I know some things are indispensable -
           Like a buck or two -
           If there's one thing I can do without,
           I can do without you!

           In a barrel, you're a pickle;
           In a gold mine, you're a nickel;
           You're the tack inside my shoe, yeah-
           I can do without you!

           In my bosom, you're a dagger;
          You're a mangy carpetbagger;
           In the theatre, you're the boo--
           I can do without you!

          You've got charm that ain't bewitchin' me,    
          You have a face that no one would paint--

          I've got the darnedest itch in me,
          To be wherever you ain't!

           In a bullfrog, you're the croak--

           In the forest, poison oak--

          Though I know something are necessary,
          My half-pint buckaroo,
          If there's one thing I can without,
          I can do without you!

          You're a knothead!

          You're a faker!

         You're a bonehead!


Calamity & Hickok:
         I can do without you!

See? Their jabs aren't rude or crude. They're smart, snappy, and full of wit. I think that's something we've lost as a society - wit. Wit, that couches a true accusation with humor. Wit - that takes the edge of anger and hatred out of emotionally charged words. I think (and this applies to me as much as anyone), in large part, we have become witless.

So the next time you need to accuse (and I do hope you make sure it is in fact necessary to do so), do it with style.

Maybe you could even make it rhyme ;)


On Vikings

I found the perfect picture of the quintessential Viking warrior (notice that there are no horns on his helmet. This makes me happy, because they didn't wear horned helmets, even though the popular or "classic" image of them almost always includes horns):

This is why they're legendary. 

Strong. Deadly. Terrifying.

Suddenly appearing off the coastline in their dragon-headed longships, half shrouded by low-hanging clouds as they approach the shore. Monsters of the mist.

No wonder the villages they attacked were paralyzed with terror. Can you imagine a horde of these guys (anywhere from sixteen to seventy or more depending on the size of their ship) descending on your home? They were highly skilled warriors and determined to accomplish what they had set out to do. If you were in their way, they took you out of it or died trying.

And that's where common knowledge of the Vikings ends. The perception of them as barbaric marauders who swept across eastern Europe, looting and pillaging and massacring as they went seems to be frozen in time. Historians aside, no one really talks about the fact that they were predominately husbandmen who spent most of their lives caring for their livestock and tending to their homesteads (they went raiding between harvest times). No one talks about their abilities as horsemen. Their skill as shipbuilders is mentioned, but generally only in relation to their raiding. No one bothers to talk about how well they built their ships - fast, flexible, and light enough to be carried by the crew. Or that they went beyond mere functional excellence to make them beautiful. The dragon heads on the prows weren't the only part of the ship that were carved. Archaeologists have found intricate carvings on portions of the regular body of the ship.  

We know the Vikings as raiders and raiders only. We don't think of them as men whose families, immediate and extended, were the center of their lives. We don't think of them as being the skilled and successful merchants who were a primary part of the trade routes that ran from Scandinavia to China. We think of them as only wielding axes (although they were equally skilled with spear, bow and arrow, and the sword), not carefully handling the instruments necessary to create the incredible carvings of the Viking age or the ornate brooches and cloak pins that were worn on a daily basis. We're familiar with their mythology - Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, the Valkyries, etc - but not with their system of law and governing.  

Yes, the Vikings were raiders. And yes, they were often ruthless and senseless in their violence. But the part of them that went down in legend is only a fraction (and a small fraction at that) of who the Vikings were as a people group, as a society, as a culture.

There is so much more to them than battle axes. 


The Results Are In...

...I didn't make it into the Quarterfinal round of Amazon's contest.

And that's OK.

Am I disappointed? Sure.

Am I in the depths of despair? Or a slough of despondency? Hardly.

Why? Well, for several reasons.

First of all, getting cut does not mean that my novel is some horribly written thing that is good only for the trash can. It doesn't mean that my story is unpublishable. It just means that the individual who was assigned to read my excerpt didn't like it in comparison to others. That's perfectly all right and totally normal. Books, whether in manuscript or published form, are entirely subjective to the likes and dislikes of the reader. One person may love the same exact story that another person hates. That's part of the writing business - not everyone is going to like what I write. That doesn't change it's value or worth or quality. I know I have a good novel. I have a PW review from last year that proves it. I don't need to overhaul the manuscript (especially since all the feedback I've gotten on it is positive). I just need to get it in the hands of the right person, and that will happen when the time is right.

Secondly, winning the contest was never a realistic option. I'm not talking about statistics or anything of that sort. What I mean is that my novel does not fit in Penguin's catalog. They wouldn't have signed me even if I made it to the top three - I just don't fit their list. I entered for the potential reviews from the Vine reviewers and Publisher's Weekly.

Thirdly, and most importantly (yes, I'm one of those writers who, except on rare occasions, save the best parts/points for last), God is sovereign. And He is good, and does good, and does not withhold good things from His children (even though we might think He does). He could have easily orchestrated things to further me in the contest. He didn't. And, to me, that means it was neither good nor necessary for me to progress beyond the pitch round.

That's all I need to know :)

Oh, the Suspense

Today is the day I find out if I make the second cut of Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award.

The first cut was at the end of February and took the contest from 10,000 total entries to 2,000 (1,000 in General Fiction, 1,000 in Young Adult Fiction). It was based on a 300 word pitch. This cut is based on an excerpt of up to 5,000 words and takes the 2,000 down to a mere 500 entries total.

I made it to the Semifinals last year with the exact same entry. And, based on a video clip of the Penguin editors talking about their top picks, I was in the Top 5. But at least some of my fellow semifinalists from last year didn't even make it through the pitch round this time. So...I could just as easily go on to the quarters as I could get cut. There's just no way to predict the results. The judging panel is new this year and I'm working on the assumption that my Amazon Vine reviewer will be different than last time. Responses to stories (in any form, not just books) is so subjective that, well, who knows?

Here's me hoping and trying to exercise some semblance of self-control by not reloading Amazon's pages every half hour (I'm doing good so far)...


Words that Dance

Yes, dance.

And sing, and fight, and love, and laugh, and hate, and struggle - words that live.

Those kinds of words are the reason I love to read and why books are such marvelous companions. They are so much more than organized sequences of lines and dots filling up the numbered pages with figments of the author's imagination. They're...well, they can be so many things: exciting, full of adventure and fascination; wonderful, opening your eyes to new people and places and things; challenging, presenting a different vantage point and thereby making your scrutinize your own; delightful, filled with that which is good and lovely and inspiring.

They can also be boring. Depressing. Horrible, to the point where you want to throw the book across the room, or rip out the ending and paste your own in.

It takes several things working in combination to make any book, great or awful. There's the basic grammar and language component. Then there's style. And any number of other things I won't bother to enumerate. But the heart of the book is the story. The heart of the story is its characters. And the heart of characters is that they live.

Yes, I know, they're imaginary. In a very real sense, though, characters are alive. Or, at least they should be. Need to be, really. We identify with characters because some part of them translates into our world as real. The more of them that translates, the more we love them, the more we learn from them, the more we tell all our friends to go buy this book because it's just that good.

That realness has to exist in the characters before it can translate off the page. And for that realness to exist, the characters have to be alive within their own story. (This is why people think writers are crazy)

That's what I mean by words that dance. At some point along the storytelling timeline, something inexplicable happens. The words stop being mere words. The become people. Places. A whole new world (or our own world at a different time). A world full of people who dance, and sing, and fight, and love, and laugh, and hate, and struggle - people who live.

The trouble, for a writer (as a reader, you just get to enjoy it), is that once your characters are alive, you can't exactly control them. And that can be slightly problematic. They hate the wrong person, or love the wrong one. They rebel when you try to fit them into the story arc you had so carefully constructed. Or they up and die on you (and that's really, really annoying when you like said character). Oh, and if your story world is alive, guess what? Random characters appear and throw all sorts of wrenches into "your" story. Ask me how I know.

But when words come alive, they dance right through all the pages, through THE END, and into our hearts and minds.

I think that's worth a few complications.


On Voice

I've discovered something: blogging isn't a nightmare. Or a chore. It's actually very natural and easy.

That probably sounds like a laughable discovery, I know. But I have put off entering the blog sphere (even though everything and everyone in the publishing/writing industry says that it's essential for writers - published or not - to have a web presence and, preferably, a sizable following) for so long because I thought that blogging would be as hard for me as journaling.

I am horrific at journaling. I like the look of journals. I like the idea of journaling. But I find myself utterly incapable of keeping a journal. I thought blogging would essentially be a online journal and so I avoided it, avoided it, and avoided it some more. It turns out, though, that (for me at least) blogging is nothing like journaling. I've been thinking about why that is, and I think I figured it out. Well, I have a working theory at any rate. 

It has to do with the concept of voice. 

Every single one of my journaling endeavors ended with me ripping out the pages, crumpling them into messy little balls, and throwing them in the trash. I couldn't stand to read what I had written because it sounded so fake. I wasn't on the pages. Some high-toned and fancy-to-do version of me was. But when I clicked the publish button of my first blog post, I was completely comfortable with what I had written. It sounded like me. My voice was right. (Don't ask me why I can get my voice through on a blog and not in a journal  because I have absolutely no idea)

The more I think about voice, the more I start to understand what my instructor was talking about when she critiqued the early versions of my manuscript: that my characters were two-dimensional. At the time, the comment was hardly helpful. Not because she was wrong (she was right), but because I didn't know what she meant or how to fix it. Now I do.

The key to living, breathing characters is that they have their own voice. I know I probably sound like a crazy person, talking about imaginary people having unique voices, but it's true. The primary difference between the first two drafts of my manuscript and the final one is that I knew how my characters would say the things they say. I knew their voices. That's when they came alive. I was revising a scene, read a line of dialogue, and thought, "He would never say it like that."

That's when I knew I had a story. The plot line hadn't changed. The setting was exactly the same. The conflicts and resolutions were as they always had been. But now I was working with characters that were alive instead of cardboard cutouts. Once I knew their voices, everything else fell into place and the story improved tremendously. 

The only trouble with voice is that its not something you can create. Not really. And I know that sounds ridiculous. I mean, I'm the author, I should be able to make my characters be and do and say anything I want. Here's a secret: it doesn't work that way. To a degree, yes, it does. But if my characters are so static that they don't give me problems, I have a bigger problem - I don't have a story. I just have a bunch of words strung together on a piece of paper. And those kind of words aren't worth much at all.


My Favorite Things

"The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts." 
~Oliver Wendell Holmes


Delectable Descriptions

(I should probably mention, although it could be seen as more of a warning, that I'm very fond of alliteration. And after recently watching Singing in the Rain, I'm in an alliterating mood. "'Round the rocks the rugged rascal ran..." )

(I'll get back on topic now.)

I've been reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness during my lunch breaks over the last few days. He has a knack for setting and keeping the atmosphere of his story. As the reader, you turn the page with the same oppressive trepidation that Captian Marlow has as he experiences the African interior. Then, in the middle of all this dark dreariness, this line appears:

"...his head was as bald as the palm of my hand; but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and had prospered int he new locality, for his beard hung down to his waist."

If that isn't the cleverest way to describe a bald man with an enourmous beard, I don't know what is. Every time I see a bald guy with a long beard, I'm going to think that his hair simply evacuated from his head to his jawline and took up residence quite nicely. And I never would have thought of beards in relation to baldness if it weren't for Joseph Conrad.

Great writers can do that.

They take something ordinary, and with a few scribbles of their pen, turn it into something extraordinary.


In Which I Actually Post

See? Look, I've done it. I've posted my very first blog post.

I've left my blog sitting empty and lonely for almost a week now after creating it. Oh, I've signed in on random occasions with every intention of writing a first post. But, inevitably, I signed out with the same blank blog staring me in the face. You see, I've been trying to figure out just how one is supposed to start a blog. If there's supposed to be some sort of mission statement or description of the intended contents. If I should write about Vikings, since that's what I wrote my manuscript on and after all the research involved, I've developed a rather soft spot for the legendary marauders. And if I were to write about Vikings, how on earth would I begin? By talking about how I hate any portrayal of them that involves horned helments? Or by saying that, at heart, they were men who loved their families and held their honor as something of utmost importance?

As you can see, I decided against all of the above. I cannot give you a projected content list, nor am I going to confine myself to a "platform" of sorts where I only talk about specific and predicted subjects. I'm a writer, so I'm sure there will be many writing-related posts. But I'm also a student, a sister, a daughter, a friend; a lover of books and all things beautiful. My blog will be as varied as I am. It will be about any number of things, many of them seemingly random and unimportant - things that I'm learning or discovering or experiencing. This blog will be a window into my world. I cannot promise that you'll like what you see, or that it will even be interesting.

But you're welcome to look :)