Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Knitter, Slayer

Month: December 2014

Five Hundred Words of Magic


Emily and I just finished hosting a seven-week flash fiction contest over on the Luminous Creatures Press website. Emily gave the contest its wonderful name, The Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness, chose all the photo prompts, and posted them each Thursday morning. She also put all the winning stories into e-book and paperback formats for our resulting collection, Five Hundred Words of Magic. My husband Dave pasted all the stories into a Word document so that Emily and I could judge blindly. Meanwhile, I got to read the stories and write a few comments about them. And I got to write a few stories of my own, inspired by the beautiful photos.

Today I proofread the collection, and I am proud to say that it is terrific! Look for it in early January, 2015.

Final week of the Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness Flash Fiction Contest!

Today begins the final week of Luminous Creatures Press’s winter flash fiction contest. Emily posted the photo prompt on the LCP website this morning, and you have until Sunday at 7 AM (PST) to submit a 500-word story based on the photo. We select up to four winners a week whose stories will be featured in our upcoming anthology Five Hundred Words of Magic. All winning stories include some element of magic. You can submit your story in the comments section of the post.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Margaret Dashwood Outtakes, Part One

In honor of Jane Austen’s birthday, I decided to post a few scenes from early drafts of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas. I imagine Lucy and Robert Ferrars might be mortified to realize that they didn’t survive the editor’s knife. (All errors in the French are mine as my lovely translators never got a chance to see these scenes.)

From Chapter Five, draft 2.1:

Marriage, Margaret soon discovered, had done nothing to improve Lucy’s manner. After the company had settled themselves for tea, Lucy turned her attention to her sister-in-law.

“I suppose I should be surprised to see that you remain unmarried, Miss Dashwood. By the time I was your age, I had already been engaged for some time. Of course, my first engagement could hardly match my eventual marriage; nevertheless, one would hope that a woman of your age could have at least excited the interest of one beau.”

Margaret resisted the urge to reply.

“Margaret is only eighteen, Mrs. Ferrars,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Her sister Elinor was older than that when she married dear Edward. I have no fear that Margaret will marry when she is ready.”

“Oh, of course she will; after all, her sisters managed to make relatively good marriages,” said Lucy.

“But I believe,” Fanny interjected, “that Marianne and Elinor were quite lucky. Such felicity cannot be expected to occur a third time.”

“No.” Lucy’s agreement was emphatic. “And Marianne had her great beauty and vivacity to recommend her to someone like Colonel Brandon, while everyone knows Elinor has a steady head. But Margaret, what qualities does she demonstrate? She possesses neither Marianne’s shining beauty nor Elinor’s common sense. No, I am afraid—” But what it was that Lucy was afraid of, she could not say.

Margaret had had enough of Lucy’s prattle and, deciding the benefit outweighed the risk, performed a spell that would make the next few days bearable. She held in her mind an image of Lucy’s mouth moving but producing no sound as she whispered, “Je prends votre voix et le mettre dans ma poche.” It was a quaint little spell from an old book. The whimsy of the incantation had pleased her: “I take your voice and put it in my pocket.” Nevertheless, she had translated it to French.

Lucy realized immediately that something was amiss.

“Lucy? What has happened?” Fanny asked.

Lucy, eyes wide, shook her head and tried speaking again. She gestured frantically to her throat.

“You have lost your voice?” Fanny said, almost as frantic.

Lucy nodded.

“John, Robert!” The men stopped their conversation and attended the women.

“What is it, my dear?” John asked.

“Lucy seems to have lost her voice mid-sentence!”

John turned to Lucy. “Is this true?”

Lucy’s lips moved, forming the word “yes,” but no sound issued from her mouth.

“My dearest!” cried Robert, dropping to his knees in front of Lucy. “Try again. Slowly.”

Lucy mouthed a few more words, still unable to give her thoughts voice. Margaret arranged her face into a concerned expression. “Might another cup of tea help?” she suggested.

“Oh, yes, of course! Thank you, Miss Dashwood,” said Robert. Fanny bustled to the tea tray.

“Here, Lucy, dear, drink this,” Fanny said.

Lucy sipped her tea delicately and then set the tea aside. Aware of the company’s attention, she made much of clearing her throat. Again Lucy opened her mouth and again nothing issued forth.

“Not to worry, my dear,” said Robert. “You are merely fatigued from our journey. Perhaps you should not try to talk for a few days.” Margaret hid her amusement at the relief in Robert’s voice.

Lucy nodded, looking bewildered. Fanny rose and said, “I shall take you to your room, my dear.” She took Lucy’s arm and led her from the room.

The remaining occupants looked at each other.

“My word,” said John. “I suppose that came upon rather suddenly. Perhaps we should send for the doctor?”

“Oh, no!” Robert replied hastily. “She has been feeling a little unwell lately. Rest and a ramble in the country will set her to rights.”

Lucy’s mysterious silence contributed to the happiness of nearly everyone at Norland Manor. Robert, ever solicitous of his wife, nevertheless enjoyed speaking without interruption. Their children played with raucous abandon, never inhibited by their mother’s scolding. Fanny fawned over her sister-in-law, taking obvious pleasure in coddling her. Even Lucy enjoyed the attention her sudden illness inspired. Margaret and her mother passed the remaining days of their visit in relative peace.

The day before they were to leave, Margaret took one more tour of Norland’s grounds. She brought along one of her father’s journals with her, judging it wiser to leave the atlas hidden. Her wanderings took her to a favorite spot where a grove of oaks enclosed a little stone bench. She sat, enjoying the day’s calm for a little while before turning back to her father’s notes.

When she saw the name Bristlethwaite, she read with alacrity:

I spent the past fortnight in the company of Horace Bristlethwaite and his formidable wife, Eugenia. Both are sorcerers of uncommon skill, but Mrs. Bristlethwaite is also possessed of both wit and talent. While I do not subscribe to many of her views on magic, particularly concerning the training of servants, I have the utmost respect for her. She and Horace will make exceptional additions to the Mayfair Coven. We have sustained too many losses in this war. Bennet has only just recovered from our last battle, and had it not been for him, I would have perished. But enough dwelling on the darkness. I must return to my work; it gives me great comfort.

What could her father have meant by his reference to a battle? She had never known him to be a soldier. Could it have been a magical battle? Margaret sighed. She had so many questions but no way to answer them. She had been just thirteen when he had died, too young to understand who he was or to know what questions to ask him. During their lessons she put her attention more on the magic he taught her than on learning anything about him. Again she regretted that oversight. If only she could find some way to bring him back. I am being silly, she thought. Papa would never want me to waste my time thinking about such things. She smiled sadly as she imagined his response: What is done is done, my dear. No sense worrying about things you cannot change.

She turned her attention back to her book, but was almost immediately interrupted by the sound of shots. Jumping to her feet, she saw John’s dogs racing toward her, chasing a small vixen, with John and Robert not far behind on their mounts. The vixen dashed into Margaret’s little grove. In a moment the dogs would be upon her, tearing her to shreds. “Poor thing!” Margaret said. “Hurry, I will divert the dogs.”

The vixen stopped and fixed her with an oddly intelligent look. But at Margaret’s prompting, she dashed beneath a bush. Margaret, meanwhile, muttered the Distracted Dog Spell, a clever invention of her own, perfected on Sir Williams’s dogs. The incantation demonstrated a rare use not only of English but also of linguistic economy: “Squirrels!”

It never failed to amuse her that a simple word could have such an immediate effect. Margaret giggled when John’s dogs, as one, stopped their chase and looked up to the branches of the largest oak. They gathered around the tree’s base, barking up at the empty branches.

“Go on,” Margaret said to the vixen.

The young fox scrambled from her hiding place and streaked off down the hill just before Robert and John appeared.

“What on earth are the dogs doing?” John said as he slid from his horse.

“I thought your dogs were properly trained,” Robert said, still mounted.

“Margaret, did you see a fox? The dogs were chasing a little vixen. Would have caught her, too, had they not been distracted.”

The dogs were growing restless, still jumping around at the base of the tree, necks craned upward.

“I have seen nothing but the dogs, John. Perhaps there is a squirrel up the tree.”

“What a cacophony!” Robert cried. “Do you not train your dogs, John? I would never allow this sort of behavior from mine.”

Margaret glared at Robert’s back and then whispered, “No more squirrel.”

Suddenly the dogs bolted from the tree and swarmed around Robert’s horse, which panicked and shied, tossing Robert straight onto the ground where he sat, dazed.

“I say, Robert,” John said, striding over to help him up, “Whatever are you doing on the ground? Can you not sit a horse?”

Robert, who appeared unhurt in body if a little bruised in spirit, refused help, clambering to his feet on his own and stalking away without a word, a slight limp the only evidence of his misadventure.

John turned back to Margaret. “What on earth has gotten into the animals today?”

Margaret shrugged, struggling to maintain a mask of calm.

“I suppose I had better catch up to him. Come on,” he said to his dogs before mounting his horse and urging it to a trot. They set off toward the house, Robert’s horse trailing behind.

As soon as John and his dogs had left in a whirl of tails and flopping ears, Margaret laughed until her sides were sore.

The Awesome Power of Grammar and Punctuation, Part One

I have many reasons to be thankful for my writing partner, Emily. I’ve written about some of them before, and one day I’ll compose a post about our evolving partnership. Or I’ll simply provide a link to the post she writes. We make a good team, or as Emily told me last week, we’re part of the same Ka-Tet whose mission is to write great books. Along with some complementary differences, we share a number of attributes, including a wonderfully nerdish devotion to grammar and her sister, punctuation. During our bi-monthly writing lunches (and on many other occasions), we conduct passionate discussions about the importance of clear punctuation or sentence structure variation. I find these conversations exhilarating, though I imagine some people might not share our enthusiasm.

I understand why the topic could seem less than thrilling. For so many, the word grammar evokes memories of stern English teachers lecturing about the dangers of split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling modifiers. These infractions of grammar rules sound truly horrible—splitting, splicing, and dangling, oh my! It’s no wonder people cringe at the thought.

But our nerdy devotion allows Emily and me a different perspective on grammar and punctuation from that of the terrified high school student. We see those rules as tools for making meaning, both for the writer and the reader. A thorough grounding in grammar gives writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices for communicating their ideas and for telling their stories. And a keen understanding of grammar helps readers interpret what they read. Grammatical mistakes, however, cloud meaning, putting a barrier between the writer and the reader. For example, a misplaced comma can radically alter the sense of a sentence: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” One tiny mark changes that statement from an enthusiastic invitation to a cannibalistic exhortation. That is some awesome power on display.

Other tiny marks bear the same power. Consider a sentence such as, “I like Tuesday’s.” That apostrophe combined with an s signals ownership, so as a reader I’m left wondering what it is belonging to Tuesday you like. Take out the apostrophe and you get “I like Tuesdays.” Aha. So do I. I like Tuesdays, too. My friend Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has a fabulous post on her blog about just this issue.

Grammatical errors have the same result—confusion. Take the ominously named dangling modifier in this example:

Walking to the back of the room, heads slowly turn to watch me as they perform the traditional inspection of each person who enters.

In this case, “walking to the back of the room” modifies—clarifies, defines, describes—something in the full sentence that follows the comma. As you can see, there is an (amusing) error, and the italicized phrase modifies “heads.” But that doesn’t make any sense. The mistake takes the reader out of the narrative, forcing her to try to figure out what is going on. Sure, I can guess what the writer means, but, as I used to tell my writing students, what if I get it wrong?

The writer well versed in grammar, however, can choose to break rules to create specific effects. Take the passive voice; anyone who works in Word knows that it prefers active voice, alerting us to our “mistakes” in green. It has a point. The passive voice doesn’t provide a lot of information—we can’t identify the subject of a sentence structure in passive voice. There is no actor, in other words, as this famous example demonstrates: “Mistakes were made.” Sure, but by whom, Mr. President? Yet the passive voice can be valuable if, for instance, you’d like to use sentence structure to highlight a people’s plight: Native Americans were forced from their land and made to walk across the country. Here, using passive voice underlines the powerlessness of the Native Americans—they did not choose to leave their lands. Of course, if you wanted to spotlight the perpetrators, you would make them the subject of the sentence: The US Government forced Native Americans from their land and drove them across the country.

Like the passive voice, the well-placed sentence fragment can do a lot of work for a writer: Derek couldn’t sleep. His mind kept turning and turning. All damn night. Those three syllables, so abrupt and technically ungrammatical, emphasize Derek’s insomnia. They also create a rhythm for the passage, a short little burst of words next to a longer clause. (Isn’t this freakin’ cool?)

My final example for this post: the run-on sentence, while generally something worth avoiding, has its uses:

“Mom told me to go outside and play but I said it was too cold then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says oh Jeffrey and then told me to put on a coat so I did and I found the tree stump and came here—” He drew a breath.

I took this passage from a flash fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Jeffrey is only six, and I wanted to communicate his enthusiasm—the kind associated with children telling stories as though they have to get all their words out on one breath. I left out punctuation to achieve that affect. Correct punctuation would actually have failed me:

Mom told me to go outside and play, but I said it was too cold. Then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says, “Oh Jeffrey” and told me to put on a coat. So I did, and I found the tree stump and came here.

There are too many pauses breaking up the stream of Jeffrey’s breathless recitation of events. It’s an adult’s voice, not a child’s.

I’ll be doing more of these posts in the weeks to come because I’m a grammar nerd and want to share my love with other writers. In the meanwhile, here are some of my favorite sources for answering grammar and punctuation questions:

The Elements of Style (William Strunk)
Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb)

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Grammar
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Punctuation
Grammar Girl

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