BLOOD RED, SNOW WHITE: Not Your Mother’s Arthur Ransome

Well, not my mother’s, anyway.

When I was young–maybe 7 or 8?–my family took a trip to Canada. The trip included at least one bookstore. And there, my mom–who spent some of her childhood in England–found new editions of books she had read during those years: Arthur Ransome’s SWALLOWS AND AMAZON books. She bought the set and, so, I got to grow up with them, too.

I bought my own set years later, collecting it in ones or twos as I roamed through Charing Cross bookstores. A few days before I rented a car to drive myself out to Buttermere so I could walk around the lake “with” the children from Ransome’s stories.

To me, Arthur Ransome was a bald man with a pipe on a jacket cover who could tell wonderful stories, who knew how to draw little people waving semaphore flags, and who might have represented himself in his own stories as Captain Flint.

Apparently, though, he was also some kind of spy. Maybe.

Marcus Sedgwick’s Blood Red, Snow White is in part the story of whether or not Ransome was a spy and whether he was a spy for England or Soviet Russia. The novel, as far as I can tell, is based on some facts–Ransome’s failed first marriage; his travels as a reporter to Russia across the years of the last tsar, WWI, and the Russian revolution; and his falling in love with the woman who would ultimately become his second wife. He was at the places the book says he was, and it seems true that some people in England thought he was a Russian spy and some people in Russia thought he was an English spy.

I think what Sedgwick has done is filled in, with fiction, the spaces between the facts. He has imagined a man and a story that connect the dots of those facts. The Arthur Ransome of the book has the personality that makes sense of the real activities, and the fictional activities lend credence to the path the fictional Arthur follows.

This is all making it sound as though Sedgwick has pulled off a clever trick, dropped down a basic timeline of history and taken crayons to the gaps in the timeline. But it’s much more than this: the prose is nice, often sliding over into lyrical. The choices Arthur has to make, the one he avoids and the ones he steps toward, are real and challenging. And the setting–physical and history–feels at once tangible and symbolic. It’s an intriguing story, whether or not you know anything about Arthur Ransome the writer.

And both Arthurs–fact and fiction–do come home to England’s Lake District and do write about the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coot Club, Mrs. Barrable, and William the pug. That, for me, adds up to two happy endings.

Advertisements

I Write Novels. Or Do I?

Spoiler alert: some whining ahead.

Picture book writing status: Excellent. I have been on a roll. I’m loving the time I spend on them, and I’m getting what feel to me to be amazing compliments from the editor I’ve been working with.

Novel writing status: I feel like I am getting my butt kicked. Over the past years, I have finished one novel–a middle-grade mystery–to my basic satisfaction. It got several “nice” rejections from agents. It still needs work, mostly–I think–in connecting the action plot to a stronger character plot and in amping up the stakes. But I finished it, it came together into a full package, and I was essentially happy with it. Especially for a first novel.

A few years ago, I spent a chunk of time .on a YA historical. Trying to write a YA didn’t work for me, and the historical piece–while I loved it–was another layer of skill I don’t think I was ready to take on. More than all of that, though, I am pretty sure my tangle came about by switching from a plot-driven story (the mystery) to a character-driven story. Without the mystery goal, I couldn’t seem to plot out the things my hero would do, and I couldn’t connect any actions I did come up with to her personality, her needs, or her goals.

I looked and waited for another idea, and it came. Back to MG for me, and with a twist of magic that I thought added the right layer of “symbolism” for the hero’s struggle. I also thought the magic might play a similar role as the mystery did in my first book–something to hand my plot and character arcs on. A few drafts in…I feel like I’m back into the same kind of tangles as my YA.

I am still waiting for a critique back from the same editor I’ve been working with on my picture books, so some of this may resolve itself when I see what she has to say. But as I get closer to getting back her notes, I’ve been spending my own time trying to think about where I want this book to go and how I might get it there. Or at least closer. I spent a few hours on it yesterday and, frankly, I just got more and more frustrated.

I am pretty sure that, as with the YA, my problem is with the character-driven part. Which, if I weren’t feeling so good about the picture books, would be breaking my heart. I love novels. I have read novels since before I can remember, and for decades I have actively chosen them over any other genre: I know short stories and poetry have characters and certainly have depth, but they don’t pull me in like novels, and they don’t let me stay with all the characters and character dynamics for nearly enough time. If you had asked me twenty or thirty or–oh, heck–forty years ago–what kind of book I wanted to write (when I grew up, when I had grown up), I would have said, every single time, “novels.”

And yet…here comes the whine: novels don’t seem to love me.

Obviously, I need to see what comes back from my editor. Maybe I need to take a class. (If anyone knows a really good online novel-writing class that isn’t budget-breaking and isn’t directed at beginners, please drop a rec in the comments!). Maybe I need to read some more plot books.

Maybe I need to stick to writing picture books.

When I say that, a bit of me sings out…oh, yes! Another bit, though, says, But…I write novels. (And, yes, I know that voice is silly, but whenever wasn’t a negative voice silly?)

Okay, no resolution here. Today, I’m going to go back through my files and see if one of the picture-book ideas wants to come out and play–just identify it and get it simmering in my brain. And then I’m going to go back to some classics: —James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and (this is way back) Phyllis A. Whitney’s Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels—and I’m just going to reacquaint myself with what the two of them have to say.

And I’m going to be grateful that I love to write and that I get to write and even that I get to have this confusion about what to write.

In Which Pooh Has Fun with Picture Books

Okay, not Pooh, me. I’m having fun with picture books right now.

I’m not sure if I’m actually on a roll, or if I lucked out and landed on a couple of older ideas that suddenly turned into something, or if it’s in good part because I’ve been working with a wonderful editor. Whatever the reason, I have spent the past few months revising a few picture books and feel like:

  • I’m loving the stories.
  • I’m loving the revision work itself.
  • I’ve possibly hit a new level of sorts in my writing craft–at least in this genre.
    (There is a middle-grade novel waiting for me to come back to it soon, and I’m not making any claims of writing craft on that one yet!)

I was listening to a podcast today in which an editor was comparing reading a short story to reading a novel, and she said something about how–in a short story–everything has to count. That’s not the newest idea, and I don’t actually know where she went with that thought, because I drifted off a bit into that truth about picture books.

In picture books, hoo boy, every word does count. Seriously, this past weekend, I changed a number in one line from “eleven” to “fourteen,” and I am SO much happier with that line. It has something to do with the two syllables having a better rhythm in that line than three. And it has something to do with there being a “t” sound in fourteen and in the word that follows it. And it has a lot to do with the fact that when I swapped words, the line sang much more sweetly than it had before.

Yes, it’s harder to make every single word count, but I seem to get less lost and drifty when I’m revising a picture book, than I do in a novel. (This week, at least–don’t hold me to this statement in April!) And while I don’t expect to ever write a rhyming picture book, I love discovering the rhythm that goes best with each story. I am tone deaf, but I know when I’ve written a line in a picture book that “sounds” flat. And I know when I rewrite the line and hit the true note.

Where am I going with this? No idea! I’m having thoughts about the middle-grade that may, once I dig back in, get me past “stuck.” And I haven’t yet gone back to my pile of picture book ideas to see if any of them spark in my mind. Probably I’ll do both.

For now, I’m just letting myself fall in love with writing again.

Tomi Adeyemi

I am going to finish the second Li Du mystery, but look what just landed from the library.

After hearing Adeyemi’s interview on the Nerdette podcast, Children of Blood and Bone jumped to the top of my reading list.

Take a listen and then take a look. Or, you know, the other way around.

Elsa Hart’s JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN

I “picked up” Jade Dragon Mountain on a browse through my libraries’ ebook sections. I thought the setting and premise sounded interesting. In the early 1700s, Li Du–an exiled imperial librarian–is traveling through the city of Dayan on the border of China and Tibet. He only wants to get past the city, but he is required to get permission from the magistrate–a cousin who he hasn’t seen in years, since he shamed the whole family with his exile. A body turns him into a detective, and he must solve the murder before the trouble can distrupt the Emperor’s imminent visit.

The mystery itself is good, with multiple viable suspects and a complex enough plot that is keeping me engaged but never confusing me.

It’s the writing, though, that is putting the author on my always-watch-for-another-of-their-books list. Don’t come to this story if you want fast-paced drama or high-stakes conflict. Come to it, instead, for the lovely prose, the methodical investigation, and the peaceful mood that still manages to support the quiet tension of the story.

As Li Du is leaving Dayan, determined to accept, without question, the death of a kind and curious elderly “foreigner,” he rests on the trail and watches the mist crawl up the mountainside and break apart into small windows for him to peek through. I haven’t seen enough Chinese art to be an expert, but the writing seemed to me to capture perfectly, through words, the feeling in the watercolors and jade sculptures of mountains with tiny trees and rivers and animals and people scattered along trails and beside rivers.

“The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move but rested his eyes on the soft, white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.

Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and thought he could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.”

No gunshots, car chases, or explosions. Just beauty and intrigue and questions to be answered.

What do you do?

Depends who’s asking. On weekdays, at my day job, I work here. So if you bump into me somewhere in downtown San Jose, or we connect at an event where I’m not wearing my comfy clothes, I’d probably tell you that I’m in Development and I work with foundations to support our exhibits and educational programs. And I might hand the very cool, purple-orange-teal-and-yellow (hey, it works!) business card designed by our media & communications team.

If you catch me on the weekend, though, or at a comfy-clothes gathering some evening, I’ll probably tell you I’m a writer. And if you catch me in a few weeks at the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference, that’s definitely what I’ll say.

Seemed like a good time to order myself some new cards that say it, too.

When I Used to Listen to Tom Petty

Warning: navel-gazing ahead.

When I was younger, I made a few choices that got me into life places I didn’t want to be. In part, life just got me into those places. They weren’t horrible; I have no stories that you could build into any kind of salable young adult novel. But I would pick a path, usually because I didn’t see any other paths available, and I would go down it. I would find a destination, and I would build a piece of my world there, and at some point, I would look around at that world, and I would say…No. 

And I would chuck it all, shift gears, and pick a different path.

I was young, and part of what I was doing was what we all do when we’re young, or what we should do: try something on, test it, figure out whether it fits, and–if it doesn’t–put it back on the rack and try something else.

But, along with that rhythm, I added a layer of self-judgment (also something lots of us do when we’re young, but would be happier without). I had made a big mistake. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have a dream to follow (not one that would pay the bills, anyway). I couldn’t make myself happy. All the judgment added up, obviously, to a big feeling of defeat.

But somewhere in the defeat was also, thankfully, a thread of anger. Some of it, unfortunately, was directed at myself, but a chunk of it was also, always, directed at The World. The Universe that wasn’t giving me what I wanted (whatever that was). The anger also, on a smaller scale, pointed to specific pieces of that world–the job I had, the place I was living, the people I was surrounded by. No, the anger wasn’t fair, and it probably wasn’t healthy. But maybe it was what I needed to kick away at that much worse feeling of defeat.

And in those times, I would find myself listening to music that fed the anger. Music with a driving percussion beat, some hard guitar chords, and uncomplicated lyrics that spoke to me about not accepting defeat. About taking risks and breaking away. About Melissa Etheridge. Tracy Chapman. Pat Benatar.

And Tom Petty.

Like Free Fallin.

So yesterday, especially on top of the horrible news from Las Vegas, hearing about Tom Petty hit hard. I listened to him all the way home from work, and I listened to him on the way in this morning. And I felt his music stirring that feeling of anger again.
When I was young, there was nothing wrong with getting angry at my life and chucking things. I’m not a wild person; I always had a plan and a process and a safety net. And all the changes I made added up to where I am now, which is–in so many ways–the place I want to be.

But here’s the rub. There are a few things in my life that are not making me happy, that are part of a pathway I’d rather not be on. (I know, whose life doesn’t have these things in it, but, hey, I warned you about the navel close-up.) There are some things I would like to chuck away and leave behind. Some of these things are based in the current political climate. Some are closer to home and pretty much matter only to me. They are all things that have been making me feel defeated.

But chucking is not the same option it used to be. I am very lucky to have a husband and a son (and a cat!) who I love and want to be with. I have a home where I feel happy and where I can be true to myself.  I have friends who are very important to me. I’m not going to pack my bags, pay the last month’s rent, and move on. This is not that kind of midlife story.

My challenge, I think, is to figure out what kind of midlife story it is. And how I can use that music and the anger it stirs in a new way. How I can fight the feeling of defeat while I think about what changes I want to make, in the context of this world I actually want to hold on to.

I don’t know how to do that yet. But I think it will include listening to Melissa and Tracy and Pat. And Tom. 

Because he apparently still has some things to teach me.

RIP, Tom, and thank you.