Passage of the Week

dr. soup

I happened upon Dr. Cuthbert Soup’s A Whole Nother Story randomly, and I’m so very glad that I did. The book is wonderful – somehow exciting, strange, funny, absurd, incisive, and whimsical all at once. It’s also narrated by the delightfully eccentric and somewhat shadowy Dr. Cuthbert Soup, the head of the Center of Unsolicited Advice, and is stuffed full of a sprawling cast of characters.

This last feature of the story is especially impressive. Dr. Soup jumps from character to character, from storyline to storyline, carefully braiding these various strands together into a single, overarching narrative. It isn’t easy juggling plots like this, and when your story is populated by dozens of characters, it’s a constant challenge to keep each one unique in your readers’ minds. You must present each character quickly yet memorably, and define them in a way so that, if/when they pop up again, they are instantly recognizable (even if, as is the case in this book, their names aren’t explicitly stated).

Charles Dickens was exceptional at this. With a few swift strokes, he could paint a portrait that somehow seemed close to complete. There are, in some of his novels, hundreds of characters, and regardless of whether they play a large or small role in the story, they are all immensely memorable. When it comes to creating, introducing, and carrying characters throughout a story, Dr. Soup has skills that can be justifiably called Dickensian.

In the passage below, we find Dr. Soup introducing a brand-new character nearly three-quarters of the way through his novel. She disappears almost as soon as she shows up, yet Dr. Soup’s deft characterization ensures she’ll linger vividly in your mind. This happens again and again (and again) throughout A Whole Nother Story. In addition to being a fun, funny, and very eventful read, there is much for a writer to take away from the book. Reading it is like watching a master at work.

Enjoy.

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From “A Whole Nother Story,” by Dr. Cuthbert Soup (page 196)

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Mr. Cheeseman walked to the door and opened it to find an old woman with hair as white and as puffy as a single cloud floating through a blue summer sky. She wore glasses in round wire frames and a long blue dress that could best be described as an “old lady dress,” complete with white frill around the collar. Her posture was slightly rounded and, in her arms, she held a black and brown Chihuahua. Even though it was quite a warm afternoon, the Chihuahua seemed to be shivering as if it had just eaten a bowl of ice cream while standing in a snowstorm.

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Passage of the Week

inquisitor's apprentice

How to describe the indescribable?

It’s a question all writers must wrestle with. But writers of fantasy often have to deal with the question in a more practical way than writers of realism do. I’m not here to say that one is easier or better than the other – but when a writer, say, describes the flight of a bird, they can assume that every one of their readers will have witnessed such a thing (and probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times). However, when a fantasy author describes how a flying car maneuvers the skies or details the rules of an entirely airborne, broom-bound sport, they can’t always rely on their readers to bring their own experiences to the text. In the land of fantasy, connections to the shared reality that we all spend our day-to-day lives in are vague, tenuous, or even nonexistent.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in fantasy authors’ descriptions of magic. What does it look like? How does it feel? Does it look and feel different when you’re casting a spell as opposed to how it does when you’re summoning a demon?

There are stereotypes, of course, clichés that appear again and again in book after book. But any ambitious author, any world-builder worth their salt, will take a stab at coming up with their own, unique set of descriptions, rules, and characteristics for their magical fictions.

When I read fantasy, I look forward to these moments. There’s a certain kind of thrill that comes from watching someone successfully describe into existence something that has never before been seen, separate and distinct from the thrill that comes from reading a realist’s finely, freshly observed rendering of something previously (and often frequently) experienced. And maybe it’s because I get so excited for these moments, but a lot of times they leave me feeling disappointed. The writer ends up reaching for a cliché, or maybe just can’t figure out how to inject the weight of reality into a totally new, utterly made-up thing.

One writer who has yet to disappoint me in this way is Chris Moriarty. I am nearly done with her novel The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – a book that manages to blend elements of mystery, fantasy, alternate history, coming-of-age, and even a little steampunk – and it has been nothing but thrilling. Moriarty is especially good at describing magic. She seems to have worked out a sort of formula for doing so (not that there’s anything cold or mathematic about her writing). She usually begins by relating the magic to a real world object or experience – but then takes a leap and has a go at describing the indescribable. For instance:

And then she did it.

Whatever “it” was.

Something flimmered over her head, like the hazy halo that blossomed around street lamps on foggy nights. Sacha guessed it must be what people called an aura. Except that the word “aura” sounded all mysterious and scientific. And the flimmery light around Mrs. Lassky and her latkes just looked grandmotherly and frazzled, and a little silly and, well . . . a lot like Mrs. Lassky herself.

Something else you may have noticed while reading the passage above – Moriarty never abandons her sense of humor. It’s there in full force when she’s describing magic, and this lends an even greater sense of uniqueness and weight to her world.

For this week’s passage of the week, I’ll leave you with one more example of Moriarty describing magic in action. But believe me – this is one among many. If any of the above sounds appealing to you, if you’re in the mood for a curious and exciting ride, or if you just want to read a few thousand exquisitely crafted sentences, then get your hands on this book. Read it, and you will not regret it.

Enjoy.

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From “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice,” by Chris Moriarty (pp. 78-79)

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And then Morgaunt began to work magic.

It was so subtle that at first Sacha didn’t even see it. Morgaunt still had that coldly mocking smile on his face. He lounged in his wing chair swirling his Scotch lazily in one hand. But somehow it felt like he had reached out and grasped Wolf by the throat and was slowly strangling him.

Before Sacha knew what was happening, the entire room was thick with magic. And this was nothing like the ordinary everyday magic Sacha knew from Hester Street. This magic was larger than mere human beings. It gave him the same unnerving feeling he always got when he looked into the open pits that workmen were digging all over town for the new subway lines. You walked around the city all your life thinking that you were standing on solid ground. But then they brought in the steam shovels and ripped up the cobblestones, and you realized that the earth – the real, living, breathing earth – was still alive down there in the dark beneath the city. And if it ever woke up, it would shake off New York and all its teeming millions like a dog shaking off a flea.

Wolf and Morgaunt stared at each other. The room seemed about to catch fire. The very air crackled with magic. It felt as if all the magic in the world were being sucked in around them like a great whirlpool, spiraling down into the glowing golden liquid in Morgaunt’s hand.

Morgaunt raised his glass in an ironic toast. “Here’s to you and me, Wolf. The last two honest men in New York.”

Wolf didn’t answer. A dark flush had spread across his usually pale features. His breath was as ragged as if he’d just run up a flight of stairs. Sacha wanted to rush to help him, and he could see that Lily felt the same. But they were both frozen to the spot.

And then it was over.

Morgaunt tossed back his drink with one sharp flick of his wrist and broke the spell. Wolf staggered, gasping for breath.

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A Book That Changed My Life

The next post in the life-changing literature series comes from Jen Milius. Jen chose to write about a book that was given to her when she was a teenager by her parents, and that she has subsequently gifted to many young people in her life. Reading her piece, it’s clear that Jen has gotten quite a lot from the book over the years, and also that the book has plenty to offer anyone and everyone. Whether you’re sitting down at your desk for another day of writing, sending your finished work into the wider world, figuring out how to maintain your relationship during a spouse’s military deployment – or, really, doing anything at all – it’s always helpful to keep “a positive and possible mindset.” Any tools and techniques that help you do that are, in a word, invaluable.

Read Jen’s post, and then find out more about her and her work below.

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When Jarrett extended the offer to write about a book (story or poem) that changed my life, I immediately wanted to participate. There are so many pieces that have stayed with me because of the topic or how well the story was told, but the one I have re-read multiple times since first receiving it is The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz. My mom and dad gave me the book when I was in high school. They always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, and that your mind believes what you tell it. “You are what you think you are” (Schwartz, 1978, p. 83) is the guiding principle behind the book. It is a profound statement, and depending on what those thoughts are, it can have a positive or negative influence on how you see yourself.

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The Magic of Thinking Big influenced me because of the way it stepped through the process of how to broaden one’s thinking. It amplified what my parents would tell me. When I think about how the mind believes what you tell it, then that means that even the smallest thought matters. This book helped me to be more aware of my thoughts and how I articulated them. It reinforced that my language shaped my outlook. When I felt frustrated or initially thought I could not see a way to do something, I would step back, remember that I can do anything that I set my mind to do, and think of a different way to look at the situation. When I had challenges to overcome and I felt like they were more than I could handle, I would read this book to remind myself of what I already knew. It was just the right dose of positive reinforcement. Each time I read the book, I would pick up on little things that may not have resonated a previous time. It was those little things that I would immediately start doing, like making specific changes to my language. When my language changed, my thinking would shift and I would get back on the right track. The Magic of Thinking Big enabled me to realize that it takes the same amount of energy to think negative thoughts as it does to think positive thoughts, so why not choose positive thoughts? I strengthened my ability to focus on solutions and not problems, to focus on the “how” and not always the “why.” Sure, it takes practice and a conscious decision to change directions when thoughts drift to the negative, but it was worth it to me to make that effort.

One of the times when I read The Magic of Thinking Big was during my first deployment as a military wife. My husband and I had been married for only three and half years when he came home from a reserve weekend and shared that he was being called up. The time leading up to and through his deployment was one that relied on love, faith, and inner strength. Prior to experiencing a deployment for myself, I had only heard that they led to divorce, broken relationships, and money issues. Those were not acceptable to me. Thus, in order to have a different experience, I had to ignore the negativity and think about what I wanted and what I would do that aligned with what I desired as an outcome. I focused my thoughts on how I could serve. For instance, I sent weekly care packages full of ready-made and homemade goodies. Although the package did not bring my husband home any faster, each one represented time spent to write letters as well as identify, gather, and assemble the goodies.

I am blessed to have many young people in my life, and The Magic of Thinking Big is one of my favorite gifts for them. Each time I give this book, I tell the recipient about how my parents gave it to me when I was about his or her age and that they have so much to offer because there is only one of them in the whole world with their personality, talents, and experiences. I tell them that this book helped me to think broader and be more aware of how my thoughts guided my perceptions and decisions, which ultimately enabled me to easily and consistently have a positive and possible mindset. I believe that people thrive and blossom with positive reinforcement, and when I give this book, it is one way of doing that.

Reference:

Schwartz, D. (1978). The Magic of Thinking Big. Prentice-Hall, Inc. (Original work published 1959)

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Jen Milius Headshot Jen Milius has enjoyed writing and reading since she was a young girl, leading her to earn her undergraduate degree in Communications. Although her career path has involved intense management skills such as public relations, project management, organization development and continuous improvement, her love for storytelling, animals, and helping people, especially young people, inspired her to write about her two adorable cats, Einstein and Moo. Einstein and the Leaf and Moo and the Case of the Mistaken Identity are the first two books of the Einstein and Moo series. Jen enjoys yoga, pilates, cooking, baking, listening to music, and most of all, spending time with her wonderful husband and stepdaughter.

Check out her website at www.jennifermilius.com, like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/authorJenniferMilius and follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AuthorJenMilius. For the Einstein and Moo series, like the series Facebook fan site at www.facebook.com/einsteinandmoo and follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/EinsteinAndMoo.

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Moo ID Cover Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.