What’s in a Name? – Canine Edition

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I have a confession to make. I don’t like when pets have people names. I mean, some of them kind of work, like Max or Butch or Millie. But some just seem ridiculous, like Zach, Zoey, Chloe, or Edward.

Feel free to disagree with me. In fact, go ahead and make fun of me—here’s my second confession: I name all my dogs for characters or places from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Naming a new puppy is serious business. Our new puppy has had no fewer than five—possibly six—names in his short life. After his rescue in the Cayman Islands, he was given the name “Ivan.” Upon arrival in New York, he was christened “Cadbury.” A kind of clever name, I think, since his coat is caramel and dark black/brown. He was then adopted out to a family with small children who—after school began—decided that they couldn’t manage a new puppy and the needs of their five young children—they may also have named him, we don’t know for sure.

When we rescued poor Cadbury from the humane society, he became subject to my family’s obsession with naming our pets for LOTR characters and places, etc. We’ve had a “Brandy” (the Brandywine River), a “Ranger” (his papers said “Aragorn, Ranger of the North”), a “Took,” and we currently have a “Bree.”

For Cadbury, I wanted “Beorn” or “Bear” (after the character from Tolkien’s Hobbit), but we decided that those names were too similar to Bree. When my husband suggested “Strider” (the name given to Aragorn when he is introduced to Frodo by the innkeeper in Fellowship of the Ring) I thought “Perfect! The puppy has such long legs.”  But after a couple of days, it just didn’t seem right.

So, we whipped out our printed copy of The Tolkien Companion. It didn’t take long for my hubby to find the perfect moniker.

Drumrrrrrrollllllll…….

BREGO!

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Brego! Kingly, wild, smart, loving – the perfect pound puppy.

Yes, yes, I know—it starts with “Br” just like Bree, but it’s him. He is Brego.

Here’s the etymology of the word/name:  Brego means “chief, leader, king, lord” in Old English, which Tolkien used to represent Rohirric in his works. In the history of Middle Earth, Brego was the second king of Rohan. Also, in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, Brego is the name of a horse ridden by Theodred, the king of Rohan’s son. After Theodred dies, Aragorn advises releasing the traumatized horse who has “seen enough of war.” Later, Brego finds Aragorn after his fall from a cliff and carries him to Helm’s Deep. Read more about Brego on this great site.

Naming a pet is a like naming a main character in fiction writing. The name is going to be with you for a long, long time—through many edits and plot convolutions. You should make sure you like it, make sure it fits “personality-wise,” and make sure you don’t mind saying it and writing it over and over again. This is no joke. In the case of a dog (or MC), you might find that you say (or type) the name fifty times a day.

Wherever you find inspiration for character names—graveyards, historical records, mythology, fairy tales, baby name books, news sites—choose wisely. Names have power.

Read other thoughts I’ve previously shared on naming characters.

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The Irish in Me

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In honor of my Irish heritage, I keep a few long-standing St. Patrick’s Day traditions alive in our house: corned beef and cabbage, a pint or two of Guinness, Chieftains music and required viewing of Darby O’Gill and the Little People – a classic piece of Disney cinema based on the books of books of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh.

If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend Darby O’Gill. Film critic and historian, Leonard Maltin in his book The Disney Films, states, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People is not only one of Disney’s best films, but is certainly one of the best fantasies ever put on film.”[9]

There are surprises in the movie (Sean Connery singing!) and fiery Irish romance (between Connery and Janet Munro). And the main character, Darby, is an authentic, storytelling Irishman played by well-known Irish stage and film actor, Albert Sharpe.

I love the film for many reasons, but there are two that stand out:

First, like my Chieftains albums, the story in Darby O’Gill is a perfect Irish combination of fun, family/laughter and drama/sadness/lament. A jig one moment and a crying banshee and lost love ballad the next.  Up and then down on the St. Catherine’s Wheel of life. First laughter and then tears, and then more laughter… tall tales and ghost stories, community camaraderie in the pub and a beautiful haunting setting in ancient ruins – Darby O’Gill and the Little People has all of the best of the Irish paradoxes wrapped up in a great, satisfying fantasy adventure.

But the value placed on storytelling and the storyteller in the film is perhaps what resonates with me the most. Darby honors the leprechauns by telling their stories, and because of the this, he wins a great prize from King Brian and is treasured by the people of his village. He is an honest soul – a dreamer – who gives himself up to the story in much the same way that he gives himself up to life – unafraid to laugh when he is amused and cry when sorrowful. There is no artificiality and pretense about Darby.

I grew up amid storytellers. Some told stories in song, and some – like Darby – told stories in gatherings of friends and family. I did my best to honor this storytelling in my yet-to-be-published novel, “Dogs, Frost and Watermelon Candy” – some songs and stories bring smiles and some tears; that is the Irish way.

In my opinion, storytelling simply for the sake of sharing story with the listener is something of a lost art. So many who profess to be storytellers today simply wish to promote an agenda or persuade a listener. And, while I recognize the validity of this in certain instances, I yearn for the honest balladeer and the traditional oral storytellers of old.

And so, in honor of the day, I raise a pint today to Darby, and to the Irish storyteller in myself…and in all of us.

Sláinte

Prologue – schmologue…wait, what?!

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Having grown up reading high fantasy novels, I came to have a deep love of author-drawn maps, glossaries of elvish terms, and character lists that included the names of dragons, queens, princes, wizards and the boy who worked in the castle kitchens and didn’t know he was a hero in the making.

But, there was one familiar component of fantasy novels that I regularly scorned – the prologue. After all, who wants to read an entire pre-history of a world/land/kingdom before the voice of the main character speaks? Or, if a single event or action was so vitally important to the story, I wondered, why doesn’t it happen, or why don’t we find out about it, in the actual story? I admit that, sometimes, if the prologue was only a couple of pages long and not titled Prologue, I was, in fact, tricked into reading it. Say, for example, the title on the page read Kingdom of Maron, Year of the Conquest, and then, in the voice of the old king’s servant, told (in eight paragraphs) how he smuggled the baby princess out of the castle during the attack of the evil forces and left her with two kind old women in a cabin, in a little village, on the far edge of the forest–just before he was killed by a marauding band of sorcerers. Then, on the very next page, the title read Kingdom of Maron, Sixteen Years After the Conquest, and the real story actually began with the now sixteen-year-old princess-who-doesn’t-know-she-is-a-princess-but-I-know-she-is-the-princess wondering why she was so different from everyone else in the village….

Grrrrr….

Needless to say, I avoided prologues whenever possible. Which leads me to the point of this post–my confession of how I once mistook a fantastic science fiction series for a fantastic fantasy series.

The series was The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey.  The novels each begin with a looooooonnnngggg prologue about a sun and the planets around it, and orbits and blah, blah, blah. I skipped right to the lovely maps and glossaries and cast of characters and immersed myself in what I thought was one of the most original fantasy novels I had ever read. There was a new world with dragons that bonded with riders and could disappear and reappear at will. They protected the villages of weavers and fishermen and farmers and miners and music-playing harpers from an evil (Thread) that fell from the sky and devoured all living things. There were no machines or computers in this land, just a kind of non-religious early middle ages society. I LOVED the Pern books and devoured every one. The original trilogy, the Harper Hall trilogy, the story of Moreta’s Ride…and then came Dragonsdawn…and wait, what?!

I discovered my error. Dragonsdawn told the story of the original colonists who came to Pern in a SPACESHIP. How they hadn’t known about the biological organism – Thread – that existed on a nearby planet and fell on Pern when the orbits of the two planets came close enough. How they used genetic manipulation of an indigenous species – fire lizards – to create the sentient dragons that could bond with humans and fight the threat of Thread.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an absolute idiot. Suddenly, so many details in the “fantasy” storyline shifted and made an entirely different kind of “science fiction” sense.

And, readers, because of that incident, although I still doubt the need for most prologues, I now read them all – long, short, pointless, lengthy, or predictable.

Lesson learned.

SCBWINY16 (The Pee Critique)

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20160307_100346 (2)So, this post was begun directly after the SCBWINY 2016 conference that I was privileged to attend February 11-14. It’s impossible NOT to get writing ideas when you are at this caliber of conference. At least a hundred possible blog posts popped into my head during the magical hours of creative energy that I experienced. I met dozens of writers and illustrators, all bright with the light of excitement that is generated when the lovers of children’s literature come together. A slew of dynamic and highly successful people presented, including editors and agents and authors and illustrators—Rainbow Rowell, Gary Schmidt, and Rita-Williams Garcia, just to name a few.

Unfortunately, I came down with a horrific chest cold after returning from the conference. For almost a week I huddled under a blanket and sipped hot lemon-honey water, all of the energy infused into my writer’s soul by the conference leaking out into pity puddles surrounding the old reclining chair I commandeered during my illness.

When I finally began to recover, I went back over the notes I had taken during the conference to try and rekindle some of the magic. So many writing and creative truths. So many spot on words of wisdom. And yet one section of my notes brought me up short and caused a pouty writer’s frown to appear on my face.

The Pee Critique.

It happened on the very first day—In order to help myself along in the process of transitioning to full-time writer, I’d registered for the Writer’s Roundtable Intensive. The registration site described the Roundtable like this:

The Writers’ Roundtable Intensive is intended for committed writers with submission–ready material. All intensive attendees have the opportunity to have the first 500 words of a manuscript reviewed during round table critiques lead by an editor or agent during a morning and an afternoon small- group critique session. 

We were instructed to bring eighteen copies of the first 500 words of the project—nine to share in a roundtable in the morning and nine in the afternoon. Each writer would be given 15 minutes to read their work and then receive input from the editor or agent. A couple of writer friends had participated in the roundtable in the past and suggested that I bring a few different projects in order to target my offering toward the expert I was assigned.

In the morning I was lucky enough to be at a table with an executive editor at one of the major publishing houses. My offering was a favorite project of mine—Spy Cat!, a James Bond-spoofing chapter book about a dog with grandiose dreams of being an international cat spy (I know, crazy idea, right?).

Trying not to read too quickly (or let my voice shake) I shared Spy Cat! with my morning table.

Finish…hold your breath…and…?

Ms. Executive Editor: I really like this! It’s so much fun! You’ve really nailed the chapter book style.

Okay, now I can breathe…..!

She went on to give a couple of suggestions that I immediately saw would improve the story and then continued to compliment me on my voice and style.

A couple of the other writers at the table made comments, as well.

Wow. I was floating for the rest of the morning. I had to force myself not to smile constantly. I saw a book contract in my inbox by June. When I met my daughter for lunch later and gushed out the whole story, she shared my excitement.

This conference was going to be AMAZING!

Then, on to the afternoon session. A young, very accomplished literary agent was the expert at my table in the afternoon. In a short panel given that morning, the agent had stated that she was looking for YA, so I passed over Spy Cat! and my quirky social-networking picture book FarmPals, and instead, decided to read Liar’s Song, my most recently-completed middle grade novel.

Still flying high from the praise I received in the morning, I sat down at my new table with nine copies of Liar’s Song, ready to go.

Two writers read before me. The first offering was a kind of therapeutic picture book, very interesting. Then, the writer who read just before me also read from her middle grade novel. It was set in the late 1960s. Like my Liar’s Song, her story revolved around a serious issue that pushed the boundaries of acceptable middle grade subject matter. I found her writing clean and full of rich images, but the voice seemed a little “old-fashioned” for the contemporary reader.

When she finished reading, we all turned toward the expert.

The agent’s critique was pointed in the extreme and, I was horrified to realize, much of the criticism Ms. Agent was providing also applied to my own offering (which I hadn’t even read yet!)!!

Ms. Agent: Why is this novel set in the 60s? (Mine was set in the 70s) Unless it is very important to the story, it should be contemporary.

Author Aloud/Me in My Head: Well, there’s an important part about the Vietnam War…a critical character dies in the war.

Ms. Agent: There are conflicts going on today. Why does it have to be Vietnam?

Author Aloud/Me in My Head: No…but the 1960s (70s) are a time period I feel comfortable writing about. And I don’t want to bother with cell phones and computers.

Ms. Agent: I get submissions all the time that are “historical” just because the writer is too lazy to write in the present. It is so much easier for me to find a home for a contemporary novel. You should really think about whether or not your project is really, truly historical.

The agent went on to compliment the beauty of the writing and some of the points that intrigued her, but encouraged the author to think about a contemporary setting and voice.

And then it was my turn.

I read my 500 words, thankful at least that my humor and voice would shine through and hopefully counterbalance the issues with my “lazy” fake-historical middle grade fiction!!

The novel begins in the middle of the night. The main character’s mother is running away from her life—taking her two children and leaving without telling anyone where they are going. They have been driving for hours when the main character, an almost twelve-year-old girl, tells her mother that her little brother needs to use the bathroom. The mother pulls the car over and takes the boy into the grass to pee. While the car is stopped, the girl worries about when, and if, they will ever go back home. She dreams of being a famous singer and is set to perform with her father in a few weeks. She is afraid she will miss that chance to make her big break.

Upon finishing my 500 words, I thought it best to immediately acknowledge that I recognized many of the same issues in my writing as those the agent had previously pointed out. If she could just progress on to any additional comments, I said, I would appreciate it. (In this way I thought to spare myself the pain of more pointed words.)

Silly, silly Leanne writer-lady.

Ms. Agent: Why do you spend the first four paragraphs talking about her brother peeing? It really put me off. I don’t know anyone—any characters—well enough yet to know if this is meant to be funny or not.

Me: Cricket, cricket.

Other Roundtable Author: Yes, I thought the same. It was kind of gross—I mean, who wants to read about peeing?

Me (In my head): You traitor, fellow writer…just wait until you read YOUR 500 words!!!

Ms. Agent: And, you used dialogue in the first line—that’s always hard to pull off.

Everyone Else at the Table: Nodding like sheep!!

Me (In my head): Brown-nosers!

Ms. Agent: You should use those first few paragraphs very wisely. Let us get to know the protagonist—by the way, how old is she?

Me: Eleven—almost twelve.

Ms. Agent: Her voice reads like an eight-year-old. Is this supposed to be a novel? It reads more like a chapter book.

Me (In my head): Waaaagghhhh….. (Charlie Brown-style)

Ms. Agent: I did like that she wants to be a country music singer in Canada. I didn’t even know that was a thing. And your voice is fun—and funny. Later, after the peeing part. If you could just get rid of the peeing….

Me: I really had no idea that would put everyone off. I’ll definitely take a look at it.

And so, I was barely present for the rest of the readings. I looked and nodded, but in my head I was going over all that had been said. I really loved this novel and, since it was evident that the peeing was a bad way to begin, I’d just have to rethink that opening scene.

And…the entire remaining 40K words of my not a novel, fake historical, not a middle grade protagonist masterpiece.

But, like I said, the conference was amazing. I learned so much and left so energized. One of the best sessions I attended was Cheryl Klein’s breakout on revision. Since I knew I had quite a bit of work to do, her session gave me some solid practical methods for moving forward. After listening to her present, I went to the conference bookstore and picked up her book Second Sight. Reading it that evening, and then, again on the train back home, I came to the section “The Art of Detection” and read about line-editing and the process of testing every sentence against the question “What purpose does this serve?” Take a look at this excerpt from the section discussing Cheryl and Arthur Levine’s editing of a first draft of the beginning of Lisa Yee’s So Totally Emily Ebers:

“Arthur commented on the “pee your pants” paragraph. That’s because peeing your pants is intrinsically a little gross, right? And on the very first page of the book, we readers don’t know Emily well enough to go there with her, so it put Arthur off (me too <Cheryl>, I admit).”

And on the next page….

…note the changes Lisa made here. She cut the “pee your pants” paragraph…

Wow. The great universal editor Serendipity strikes again.

Thank you, Ms. Agent. Thank you, Cheryl Klein.

Thank you, SCBWINY16.

On to revisioning and re-visioning.

 

Haunted by Inspiration

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There is a twilight girl who has been visiting me lately. She makes her appearance in those moments between waking and dreaming, or when the rhythms of life allow the mind to wander. She is but a child—eight or nine years of age—with hair of a strange white gold that is, somehow, also red. She wears an odd, old-fashioned dress of a drab and nondescript color that hangs on

her thin body. In semi-consciousness I see her walking along on a dirt path or sitting upon a broken rock wall with her chin resting on her pulled-up knees. I see her always from behind, at first. Either I am walking through the woods and come upon the path and the girl unexpectedly, or I am wandering amid a messy Victorian-ish garden and I catch sight of her through a cascade of vines. As I approach, she turns and looks at me through the corner of her green-gold eye, then she fades into nothing.

And even though I try to fight it—try to stay with the halfdream—sleep arrives…or slips away from me.

I know this girl’s name and I know her story. I know it because I am her creator. She came to life in a novel that I began months ago while taking a two-hour train ride along the Hudson River. The story began without planning, without warning, as inexorable as an avalanche. A magic combination of synapses fired in my brain, triggered by the images I saw outside the train window—a massive old house half-hidden on a rocky outcropping on the river, a strange stone fountain covered in dead vines, a ruined castle, and a wooden rowboat half buried in sand and—bam! My writer’s brain went into overdrive.

Bannerman Castle, Pollepel Island

Bannerman Castle, Pollepel Island

I wrote all the way into the city and all the way back home. The intricate weaving of mystery and history and horror frantically vomiting itself onto the blank pages of my notebook.

And then, once I returned to my routine, I found little time for writing. The next few days passed quickly, then the next few weeks, and then…well, here we are.

The girl and I.

She doesn’t bother me while I’m working, kind little haunting-thing that she is. She usually peeks in the window while I’m folding the laundry. Or sits in the corner chair in the kitchen while I make dinner, kicking her feet and silently waiting.

Okay, okay…I’ll make time, I promise.

But I don’t.

Last night I woke groggily after having fallen asleep on the family room couch and stumbled upstairs to bed. As I quickly drifted off, her ice-red hair flashed in the mirror hanging on the closet door. I tried to focus my eyes and mind and force her to materialize, but sleep won out.

And just before I opened my eyes this morning, I found myself on the wooded path. As I approached, I saw that she was not alone—the dead young man who also sits at the center of the novel was with her.

They both ignored me. I stood beside them and they seemed not to see me. I opened my mouth to speak and no words came out. It was a horrible feeling—as if I no longer belonged with them, no longer existed.

Then today I found myself in the middle of a rainy afternoon, all caught up on the laundry and the latest episode of my current favorite creepy drama (curse you cable TV). Cleaning out my purse, I happened to open my writer’s notebook to the page where I began the original story.

As I read the words—my words—the girl, Trill, came back to vivid life, I read and was consumed by the power of my own storytelling until…

…it cut off mid-sentence.

That’s all I’d written? I was sure I’d gotten farther. Of course, I knew what should happen, what I intended to happen, but when I let the next scenes play out in my writer’s mind I found that the plot was now altered. My girl wasn’t who I thought she’d been at all.

Her lips curled into a sly smile. She looked at me out of the corner of her gold-green eye.

Clever, clever little story ghost. Haunt me any time.

In Memoriam: A Promise to my Lost Idea

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Yesterday, Saturday, in the middle of completing a complicated and extensive electronic travel expense report for my “day job,” I got an IDEA. A blessed writing idea. Something that I saw online, on my phone, or thought of as I waited for receipt images to upload, or heard outside my window caused that elusive lightbulb to flare into life.

I perked up immediately, sat taller in my chair, felt my heartrate increase, always so ecstatic to know that my creativity hadn’t died a tragic and permanent death in the struggle between being true to my writing soul and making financial ends meet.

“I’ll just finish the report and get writing,” I thought happily.

Wrong-o.

I did finish the report. Then I took my dogs outside. Then vacuumed. Then caught up on a BBC show I was fascinated with. Then threw in some laundry. Then showered and went out to dinner. Then came home and finished the book I began during my recent work travel before falling blissfully to sleep.

It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered the writing IDEA. More precisely, I remembered that I’d HAD an idea.

No! (That’s a slow-motion “Nooooooooo!” with the IDEA slipping from my grasp, tumbling over the cliff into the oblivion of Mt. Doom’s lava furnace.)

gollum

Frantically I tried to back track—what, precisely had I been doing when I got the IDEA? I went back and read the emails I’d referred to. I visited Google maps. I pulled out my receipts. I looked at the photos on my phone (since I’d had to take pictures of paper receipts for upload). I sat in my desk chair and looked around my office at the papers and books surrounding the space. I listened to the unknown, insistently-singing bird outside my window. I scrolled back and reviewed an entire day of Facebook posts by family and friends. Was it that Grammar Girl post on the timeline?? No, unfortunately not. That post, about the origin of the phrase “the bee’s knees” had piqued my interest (I am an amateur etymologist/linguist), but it wasn’t the source of the IDEA.

What else had I done? I’d looked through the paper mail that had arrived while I was traveling—thumbing through the latest Anthropologie catalog—loving the designs and disgusted at the prices, as usual.

No, nothing there.

And I’d returned emails, connecting with 4 new people on LinkedIn and looking at a few “pins” that Pinterest friends had sent to me.

Nothing.

I’d gotten the “Skye Boat Song” (with Stevenson’s poem/lyrics) stuck in my head while folding laundry. I ran over the song slowly. “Sing me a song of a lad <thought> that is gone…” Nope. Nothing.

After sixty minutes—a full hour of anxious searching—I began to resign myself to the truth.

The IDEA was lost.

I imagined it floating over my head, like a person near death—having left his/her body—hovers over the living. It wanted to return, I knew. But I couldn’t save it. Because I couldn’t see it. Couldn’t identify it. Couldn’t reach it. Couldn’t pull it back.

Looking back, I, of course, know that I should have stopped what I was doing. I should have halted in the middle of preparing that very important expense report and made a note of the IDEA. I usually do just that, but, for some stupid reason yesterday, I didn’t think I would forget.

I’d lost ideas before in much the same way. I’d had “eureka moments” that slipped away into nothingness—fell victim to my busy life and cluttered mind. And after those losses, I’d researched the best practices in capturing ideas and vowed to always carry a notebook, always write down dreams immediately upon waking, and always record an idea the moment that it occurred.

And I’d kept those vows each time…for a time, at least.

It’s human nature, I suppose. We constantly lapse in our resolutions. We wake up with a headache or stomach upset after one too many glasses of wine, one too many cupcakes, or one too many forkfuls of spaghetti the night before and vow to moderate in the future, only to eventually indulge and regret once more. Or we plan to exercise, organize, or make time to write/create or educate ourselves and the first little bump interrupts our good intentions—bad weather so we can’t walk, a phone call from a friend so we can’t clean our desk, a sniffle or sneeze so we can’t attend a lecture or class, our favorite pen runs out of ink…

Thankfully, it’s also human nature to begin again. We learn from the past, but we move toward the future.

I do regret losing you, IDEA. I will endeavor to remember the loss of you each time the lightbulb of creativity gifts me with the impulse of a new IDEA. I swear to you that, when that moment happens, I will turn away from commonplace duties and give my full attention to the writing magic. I will heed the call of the muse over the call of the mundane.

Promise. Cross my heart. Unless, you know, I forget….

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-bees-knees

http://lifehacker.com/5924377/how-do-you-capture-your-eureka-moments

Ghosts of Scrooges Past

To help keep me from turning into “Scrooge” or, as my family would say “Figgy Morgoth, the Christmas dragon”–I’m re-posting last year’s holiday offering. Enjoy! (FYI–Figgy is derived from figgy pudding, Morgoth was the principal agent of evil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion–hence, Figgy Morgoth, the Christmas dragon who rears her/his ugly head whenever the holiday preparations/celebration don’t go as planned. It’s just such an appropriate term–feel free to re-use, but please, credit its Pankuch origins. Ha!) All the best, Leanne.

Leanne Pankuch

I’ve read Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” at least twenty times and I’ve seen nearly every film and television version of the story, from the first silent movie depictions to Disney’s most recent CGI-animated monstrosity. I enjoy the 1938 film with Gene Lockhart as the perfect Bob Cratchit, but my favorite classic version is the 1958 film “Scrooge” with Alistair Sim. It is a masterful portrayal of the tale. Every year I hate Sim’s selfish and sarcastic Scrooge at the beginning of the story, yet am somehow drawn to him and his cynical loneliness. I then laugh when he dances around and frightens Mrs. Dilbur after his conversion, and, finally, cry when he sincerely apologizes to his nephew Fred and Fred’s fiancee.

But the version most enjoyed my entire family is “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Old “Fozziewig” and…

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My Physical Book Addiction— A Rambling Confession of Guilt (Not!)

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I like to tell stories about how I read voraciously as a child. Even when I put down my current book to eat breakfast or lunch, I would find myself searching out the words on the cereal box or the mayonnaise jar. I read everywhere. All the time. I couldn’t stop. It was a torture to me that I was subject to motion sickness during the long car trips my family made between Illinois and Canada and I was forced to read signs and mile markers and license plates and bumper stickers instead of books.

I’m grown up now (at least in years) and my addiction has grown to monumental proportions. It isn’t just reading that marks my “illness” now, but the thousands of physical books that I own. You see, I’m not just one of those crazed readers who consumes the NY Times Bestseller list in as few bites as possible or who belongs to some snooty book club who dissects literary one-hit wonders to the point of college literature class torture. I do, indeed, read, and I sometimes I even read e-books– (gasp!). But the book that earns a permanent spot on my shelf must have one exceptional quality that most new books lack.

I must want to re-read it.

Not immediately. Not for a special purpose. Not necessarily for research or inspiration—but simply because the writing drew me in. It took me to someplace new. The words made me feel and care and escape. Perhaps the writing wasn’t perfect, but there was something…some intangible magic that was called to life as I read, like a Pagemaster-y Inkheart-ish enchantment. I am forever searching for the story that has the capacity to ensorcell me again and again and again.

What books are on my shelf? So many, my friends, so, so many. Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Lois Lowry, Christian Jacq, Garth Nix, Victoria Holt, Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Philippa Gregory, DuMaurier, Irving, Bronte, Stoker, George R.R. Martin (damn him!), Thackeray…the list goes on and on and on…new authors, old authors, young authors, dead authors.

And, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that it isn’t just fictional stories that can transport my spirit, but poetry, nonfiction, history, and even just fantastic illustrations. I own an extensive collection of Elizabethan history books including antique first edition biographies of Elizabeth I. And I’ve become a collector of fairy tale books of all kinds—particularly old volumes with illustrations from the so-called “Golden Age”—Arthur Rackham, Caldecott, Greenaway, and Dulac are among my favorites (I recently acquired a copy of the Hungarian “Csoda Album” illustrated by LEFLER AND URBAN…so amazingly beautiful, sigh…).

Lefler and Urban, 1911

From The Csoda Album, illus. Lefler and Urban, 1911

I’ve also become enamored with Edward Gorey’s offbeat art and stories. And studies of world mythologies (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces) and Victorian cemeteries and asylums have all earned a place in my personal library, as well as books on the art and craft of writing and the history of language.

I have over 2000 books on the shelves around me as I sit at my desk writing. All of these books mean something to me. I can pull any book off the shelf and know that it is a worthy companion. The physicality of the book is part of its relationship to me. It’s a little like the difference between hugging someone in person and sending them a little “*hugs*” message in an email. I don’t read or collect books in the way that some individuals “friend” others over social media. I’m not just gathering the largest pile possible or reading to keep up with pop culture. I have read the words, pondered and processed and daydreamed about the content, closed and opened the cover, reveling in the weight and thickness/thinness of the pages, and followed the trail of thought to the author’s last word or the artist’s brush to the final colorful stroke of expression.

I recently packed up my library and moved to a new house in a new state hundreds of miles away. Books are heavy, friends, very heavy. And packing and then unpacking and reorganizing my cherished collection in a new, smaller space has been challenging. After I mentioned this to someone in my extended family she asked why I just don’t buy electronic copies of my books.

I tried to explain but she shook her head, obviously not understanding. I think she felt sorry for poor book-addicted me–as so many other, practically-minded people do.

And we feel sorry for them, don’t we?

Avoid Muse Envy: Woo your Creative Soul!

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Valentine’s Day is a wonderful event for lovers. Roses, cards, candy, and starry-eyed glances are the order of the day. But what if you’re a solo act? Or you and your romantic partner are in the midst of a nasty spat? The entire day feels like a waste, doesn’t it? It seems like everyone in the world is “in love”…except you.

There are some writers who always seem to be in tune with their inner muse. They appear to enjoy a veritable fountain of ideas and frequently share daily social media updates detailing the number of poems they’ve composed or how many thousands of words they’ve added to their novel. While speaking at writing conferences they bemoan having to choose between two amazingly inspired plot ideas and speak of shoeboxes filled with future projects. I can only think of one word to describe these individuals….

ANNOYING!

At least, that’s how I feel when my own Muse is nowhere to be found. She’s off somewhere for a “Muses’ Night Out”—partying it up with some F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kate DiCamillo full-time author in a published book-filled office in some idyllic, remote New England farmhouse!  Grrr… Meanwhile, I sit cold and idea-less in my uncomfortable chair, hands hovering over the laptop keyboard like a frozen concert pianist.

Why can’t I think of anything? I scheduled this one hour block of time at the end of a long day at the office in order to nurture my creative writing self—why is my Muse AWOL?

I’ve recently struggled mightily with Muse Envy. Mulling over my lack of spontaneous creativity has wasted more precious writing time than I care to admit. Luckily, I recently came across a short-but-wonderful older post on the site “The Write Practice” that helped me work through my difficulties:

Most writers either over discipline their muse or ignore her (or him). The key to solving your discipline problem is to realize you don’t have a discipline problem. You have a relational problem.” (Joe Bunting)

The post goes on to detail seven ways in which writers mistreat their muses. I quickly realized that I was guilty of committing every single one of the seven offences. (You can read the entire post here: http://thewritepractice.com/7-reasons-your-muse-isnt-talking-to-you/

I felt guilty. I thought of all the small ways that I had alienated my Muse. If only she would come back to me! I’d never take her for granted again!

The next day, while riding home on the train, heavy snowflakes began to fall. We pulled into the first station stop and I noticed a woman in a red coat trudging through the snow. She had an enormous blue stuffed animal strapped to her back. Its long arms and legs bounced with each step she took.

???? Where is she going???And why…?

Hello, my Muse! Let me pull out my notebook…there! Now, what was that you were saying?