Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Podcast of My Story (via District of Wonders' "Far-Fetched Fables)


Far Fetched Fables
"The Hum of Refuge," a piece of flash fiction I wrote some time ago (some of you may remember it--it involves both razor wire and a reference to the Fey Folk), has found an audio home on one of Far Fetched Fables! Go HERE to listen.

You can also read a few of my other short stories here, if so inclined. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cautionary Tales

I was talking with a friend about fairy tales lately. Among many other purposes, fairy tales once provided children with memorable warnings. The stories cautioned young listeners about certain aspects of humanity and about the necessity for humility and courtesy to strangers. When I wondered aloud whether a modern equivalent exists (do we tell cautionary tales to our children today, or just inspirational tales?) my friend pointed out that the modern world is full of cautionary tales. However, they are all for the parents.

Nowadays, it is generally the parents who are supposed to worry about strangers, dangers, and rustling noises in the woods. Not children. Children mustn't be exposed to darkness in their stories, lest they be alarmed. Not, at least, until they are old enough for the YA section.

I wonder why we do this. Being me, of course I think that all the adult cautionary tales and safety obsession is connected to other ideas, which are connected to other ideas, which show us what some of the problems in the modern world are. I'm working on an article about that.




Monday, February 9, 2015

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

I just noticed that, after a long absence, Christie of the lovely blog Spinning Straw into Gold has posted again. Away I went to read the article. It turns out that she has won a "Very Inspiring Blogger Award" (yay!). As I scrolled down, I discovered that she has nominated Don't Forget the Avocados for the same honor (yay again!).




Thus, I am supposed to share with you seven things that you may not know about me.

1. The knees of my jeans often have food and drool stains on them. This is not because I eat with my knees. It is because my fifteen-month-old likes to wipe his hands and face on my body while expressing his impassioned desire to be picked up.

2. I really like the color red. Red tea pots, red dish towels, red mugs, etc. Even my toaster is red. However, I never did manage to convince my husband that a red accent wall would be a good idea.

3. The heroine of my novel-in-progress is from Berkeley, California, and her mother is a professor of folktales. This background becomes useful to my heroine when she is kidnapped by a folktale queen.

4. I prefer to compose all stories and articles in Times New Roman, even if I need to change the font to something else afterwards. Somehow, Times New Roman keeps the words flowing more smoothly for me.

5. I am fond of nasturtiums, feverfew, and Martha Washington geraniums (I picked some of the latter to put in my bridal bouquet).

6. The first "real" book that I read independently was Little House in the Big Woods. I devoured this at the age of eight, and thus began my life as a reader.

7. My younger sister used to hide my books to try to make me play with her.


OK, now it's my turn to nominate some other blogs. I'm sticking to those of a literary-ish theme.

Vintage Novels: Suzannah writes some very thought-provoking articles about writerly and readerly things.

Semicolon: I keep an eye on the book reviews here, and have found some great titles I would not have read otherwise.

Amongst Lovely Things: I really appreciate Sarah Mackenzie's discussions of classical education, homeschooling, and building a family culture around books.

Alison's Open Sketchbook: Alison is a visual artist, not a writer, but I enjoy the thoughts that arise in her life as a creatively-inclined mom.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Most of this charming blog is not about books, but take a look at the Library Project on their site (the button at the top doesn't work: search for the term in the search box, or use the link I'm providing).

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Learning to Be a Novelist


My manuscript is progressing. Right now I have about 13,000 words, and my modern-day heroine has been successfully kidnapped by a folktale queen.

I like this book quite a bit. My ability to control a story--cutting, adding, and changing in order to achieve the desired effect--has increased significantly in the last year. It’s exciting to be able to do things that that I didn’t use to be able to. I still struggle to achieve the layers of richness and nuance that I would like, though, so I clearly have a lot of work and learning ahead.

One interesting question that the class has raised is whether an author needs to "love" their protagonist. It seems that most of my fellow classmates do feel deeply attached to their main character. I like my heroine, but I don't know that I love her. Is this because I don't delve deeply enough into her personality? Is it because I keep her at (too much of) a distance from myself? Is it because I won't know her fully until I finish the book? Is it because I just don't attach as easily as some people to fictional creations? I'm not sure yet.

I submitted the first six pages in my novel-writing class, and look forward to receiving the teacher’s critique tomorrow (so far all feedback has been through peer-workshopping, which always raises an interesting variety of opinions).

My current plan for the novel is to begin each chapter with a brief quotation from a historic folk/fairytale. Each quotation relates to the events of the chapter. The use of quotations seems to draw forth a mixed response from my fellow students, so I’m curious: do you (intelligent readers of my blog) like quotations at the beginning of chapters, or do you find them annoying/pretentious/something else?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Uncomfortable Mind of an Artist

It can sometimes seem as though would-be artists (including writers) cultivate chaos, doubt, and drama in their own lives because they think that therein lies the path to true creativity, or because they think it is glamorous to be a "suffering artist." I have not always been as understanding of these people as perhaps I should be.

Alison has recently started a series of articles for SDMW about how the pursuit of beauty (something she sees as the activity of all artists) is both alluring and crushing. It is one way in which natural law asserts itself and raises the great questions of human existence. There is a lot of food for thought in what she says. Her second article, in particular, helped me to see the struggling, chaotic, searching, artistic-type in a new light.

I recommend that you read both "Order, Beauty, and the Urge to Create" and also "Science, Beauty, and the Law that Kills."

On a related note, When Every Day is Judgement Day is another article by a different author (who comes from what seems to be a mainstream secular perspective) on a related topic. I was fascinated by her characterization of perfectionism as an attempt to drive a (futile and crippling) bargain with fate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why I Won't Post as Much for a While



I have been wanting to (a). focus on fiction in a more disciplined way, and (b). be pushed to improve my writing. Over Christmas I decided that the perfect solution would be to take an online class. I need to take it now, since there is another baby Mussmann on the way (due this July) and newborns aren't always very good at allowing their mothers to spend hours on the computer. If you know what I mean.

Therefore, I have registered for a novel writing class for Winter Quarter. The goal of the class is to produce a complete novel outline as well as a polished fifty pages of the novel. I'm very excited about working on my story concept and about immersing myself in the world of fiction for a few months. Hooray!

The only sad part is that, because my writing time is limited, I probably won't be able to blog much. If I vanish from this space until April, fear not, I am not dead--merely busy, and hopefully producing a masterpiece-ish tome of insight, adventure, and pleasing sentence structures.


Friday, January 2, 2015

The Myth of Arthur, the Problem of Articulate Villains, and Suzannah Rowtree’s Novel




I just finished my Advanced Reading copy (yes, it does make me feel delightfully important to be the recipient of an Advanced Reading copy) of Suzannah Rowntree’s novel, Pendragon’s Heir. The book is essentially a retelling of the story of Camelot, and therefore an exploration of the elusive, tragically costly, yet beautiful vision of building a city of light upon earth. Our young protagonist, Blanche, has been raised in Edwardian England. However, she discovers very early in the story that she is both the subject of prophecy and the daughter and heir of King Arthur. Or at least, she probably is--gossip about her mother’s chastity has sown doubt in some minds. Initially resistant to the idea of giving up her pleasant life in order to re-enter the medieval world of errant knights and rampaging villains, Blanche gradually matures into her role of heiress to a struggling kingdom. Meanwhile, her relationship with the impetuous, gallant (and admiring) Sir Percival also grows.


I soon found myself caring about the protagonists and enjoying all of the characters. Did I mention that there are several of the fey folk in this story? They are delightfully handled, and I am a sucker for well-portrayed fey folk. The relationships between characters are nuanced and often unexpected, and I was impressed by the action sequences and the author’s ability to write so many tense, believable, non-repetitive scenes of combat (although I admit that I know absolutely nothing about how to fight, and might not notice if the blows and techniques were unrealistic). In addition, the story explores significant themes. It is satisfying overall and demonstrates the degree to which the author has immersed herself in medieval and Arthurian imagery. I recommend that you read it.


In fact, the book is so good that I feel free to critique and analyze it as freely as if it came from the presses of a major publishing company. There is no need for me to be “kind” to the author by keeping any complaints, quibbles, or questions to myself. The pacing of the book is not perfect. Although both the beginning and end are taut and fast-paced, there was a section in the middle that felt a little too slow and episodic. I think this is because the main threads of the overall plot (and the relationships between the main characters) were allowed to sink out of sight while the characters gathered information and experienced minor adventures. The information and the adventures were needed for the overall story, but did not convey as much of a feeling of forward momentum. Some readers may disagree with this, and argue that I merely have a short attention span for knightly adventures.


I also find myself deeply struck by the problem of Simon Corbin, an articulate character who attempts to prevent Blanche from taking up her role as heir. In the language of a free-thinking Edwardian skeptic, he rejects belief in God as well as the idea that anyone owes a duty to a kingdom, a higher power, or a moral code. He argues for modern progress instead of feudal virtue. In a later scene, he challenges an idealistic knight with the argument that, just as even the “best” leaders sin, and just as good men use ignoble methods in war and conflict, it is delusional to believe that right can be defended without doing wrong. Ultimately, the conflict of the book could be said to be between these two positions: between those who wish to use only ethical means to create a kingdom patterned on visions of heaven (even though they know this struggle appears doomed), and those who wish to use any means necessary to create a kingdom according to their own ideas of what would be best.


On the one hand, I commend the author for creating Simon Corbin, because he is no straw man. It adds realism that our hero and heroine cannot best him in debate. However, I rather wonder if some readers (especially those who do not share the author’s beliefs) will not find Mr. Corbin’s arguments the more compelling (I once ran into this problem in a short story of my own: I tried to let both sides speak for themselves, and my liberal teacher thought that my story had made a much stronger case for liberal relativism than for conservative beliefs, because those were the arguments that resonated with her). Will such readers wonder if someone like Corbin might not have made a better ruler than a king who allows random knights to run around, walloping each other into an early grave, while the peasants do all the actual work? After all, Mr. Corbin is the only one who addresses “realistic” issues such as sanitation and the suffering of the poor.


The motivations of the good characters are harder to put forth in tidy, convincing arguments, and they rest more heavily on what might uncharitably be called mystical naivete. Here of course we see, in a nutshell, the challenge of a Christian author who speaks from her own perspective while trying to avoid heavy-handedly “proving” her own point, or pausing the narrative for a discussion of theology. If one speaks too often or too directly about God, one risks alienating non-Christian readers or of failing to remain in the role of novelist. If one approaches philosophical and religious themes more obliquely, one can have trouble providing a full, compelling picture of one’s beliefs.


I have been asking myself if Miss Rowtree should have handled her story any differently. It might have strengthened her tale if the good characters had defined Arthur’s kingdom more concretely, and, in particular, truly acknowledged the humanity and needs of the peasantry. I realize that this story is intended to fit into the tradition of the knightly tale, not that of a realistic novel, of course, but I wonder if Mr. Corbin should have been allowed to introduce the sufferings of the poor without having the protagonists also truly acknowledge this issue.  


Such questions aside, I enjoyed reading this novel, and I enjoyed thinking about the questions it raised in my mind. Many thanks to Suzannah for the opportunity to do so! I loved (and still love) her characters, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. 





Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Book You May Want to Read


I've been reading reviews and other articles on Suzannah Rowntree's blog for a while now, and was interested to hear that she is going to release a novel of her own this March. The premise sounds intriguing, and I look forward to reading my own electronic copy.

Suzannah sent me some announcement material to share, and here it is!




Synopsis

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?


Author Bio

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of two non-fiction books, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene and War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian life. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, springs from her lifelong love of medieval literature.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Quick Takes


1. 
***

This Advent is going by swiftly, as all Advents seem to do ever since I reached adulthood. I remember how long the weeks before Christmas once seemed to be. We girls would make our Christmas lists, lie in front of the tree to gaze upon any packages, bake cookies, draw endless cards to go into people's stockings, and wait. It was a time of preparation for something that we knew was good. Perhaps that part of the message of Advent is easier for children to grasp than adults.

Because we won't be home for Christmas, it seems silly to bother with a tree, so we haven't. I am suffering from Christmas-tree-envy as I look in all the neighbors' windows and see their beautiful lights and ornaments.

However, we have been enjoying other Advent activities.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In Which I Try to Pin Down Differences Between Great Authors and Not-Quite-Great Ones




I am simultaneously reading two books right now. One is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (this is a reread for me) and the other is Anon, Sir,Anon by Rachel Heffington. I’ve written about Lavinia before. Richly steeped in the world of ancient Italy, it is the story of a minor character from Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only is it a remarkable portrayal of a woman who is strong without falling into modern tropes or cultural expectations, but, in the true spirit of Virgil’s original epic, it is also an examination of the concepts of piety and virtue. I am discovering all kinds of themes and ideas that I had not noticed the first time.

Ms. Heffington’s book is a period murder mystery, set (as the book jacket tells us) “against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog.” Thus far it is enjoyable in its own way. The character who most interests me is the eccentric, Shakespeare-quoting, cantankerous old uncle who eschews relations and solves murders. The language is bright and sprightly, full of the obvious influence of various English authors from past eras (perhaps especially P.G. Wodehouse). It is in the handling of the characters that Ms. Heffington’s relative inexperience shows most. I find myself sometimes unsatisfied as a scene progresses. I wish to remain absorbed in the story, but little flaws--little clouds in the clarity of the author’s purpose when a character speaks or acts--arise to push me back to the status of objective observer and critic. It is not reasonable to expect every author to write with the skill of Mrs. Le Guin, but it is instructive to ask oneself what the difference is.

When I read Lavinia, every single word communicates to me. The feelings and personalities of the characters feel utterly real. If a situation is ambiguous, I know that it is on purpose. When I read “lesser” authors, I usually know what they are trying to tell me, but sometimes they fumble. Sometimes I am not sure whether or not a given impression was intentional. Sometimes their characters seem unintentionally inconsistent, or it seems as if the character may have said their line merely because the author thought the line was funny or clever, instead of because the line tells the reader something about the character. I'm sure my own stories have this problem, as well. 

I am trying to form hypotheses about what causes these differences. I think certain mistakes tend to rob a passage of narrative power:

1.      Too many minor emotions in one scene. The protagonist and other characters are afflicted with a whole chain of feelings (embarrassment, pique, amusement, fear, etc.) without proper build-up.
2.      Vagueness of purpose. If an author has made it clear that a particular character is, say, overly imaginative and inclined to be unduly fearful, I accept scenes in which the character behaves that way. If the author instead makes the character just a little too imaginative or fearful in a random moment or two, I tend to suspect that the author is unintentionally overdoing the scene. This makes me frustrated.


What else?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gold Thread at Christmas


A short story by Anna Ilona Mussmann

This is something that I wrote two years ago and have recently edited. It's a bit of light fun, and no babies were harmed in the making of it. Merry Christmas to all my readers!


Shivering, the dwarf pressed both hands into his armpits. His summer jacket was as inconsequential here as if the void through which he had passed had spat him out naked. While he waited for the dizziness to pass, he scowled at the brick buildings that loomed upwards in their narrow lots—they filled him with a sense of puny unimportance. This world was tall and bland, full of unadorned cart horses and workmen in iced-over mustaches. He would be doing a favor to the child he had come to take.

Despite the cold, the dwarf unfastened the second to last button on his waistcoat before he selected assistance.

Two men trotted along the sidewalk, sprigs of holly pinned to their lapels. The open bottle that one of them clasped against his snowy shirt front seemed to be their defense against the cold. They, too, towered above him, glossy black hats increasing the contrast in height.

“I beg your pardon,” he declared, barring their path. “Can you gentleman direct me to the location of the royal birth?”

Two bewhiskered faces stared down at him. One guffawed, baring tobacco stained teeth. “What have we here? A circus midget? Better get back to your keepers, little fellow, or you’re liable to be mistaken for an organ-grinder’s monkey.”

“Look at him!” exclaimed the plump one. “Gold embroidery, red cap, the lot.”

Stepping backward, the small traveler cracked his hairy knuckles. “I beg your pardon,” he repeated grimly. “Do you intend to answer my question?”

“Loopy,” the tobacco-lover observed.

The plump one added more kindly, “This is a democracy, my small friend. We don’t hold much with royalty here.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

We Shop Because We Yearn (at The Federalist)


My opinion on why we buy pink (or blue) baby tubs and crazily-expensive wedding dresses. Plus a Dorothy Sayers quotation, which always makes an article better.

We Shop Because We Yearn 
Bridal gowns, baby gear, and other stuff we shop for are part of the human quest for identity and quietly acknowledge the realities political correctness seeks to deny. 
In “Murder Must Advertise,” a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel from 1933, the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in an advertising firm. The narrator tells us, “He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.” 
The advertising of our decade is very similar: products are advertised not as shirts, cereal, or face lotion, but as “something to make you look thin,” “something to help your kids get good grades in school,” and “something to make you look like Jennifer Lawrence.” The items with which we fill our shopping carts are as much ideas, fantasies, and forlorn hopes as they are food and raiment. Advertising is manipulative, but in its own limited way, it also reveals the yearnings of the American heart.
Read the rest HERE.


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