(Re-post of a post from last year)

I had an epiphany on Monday night while reading Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse which has caused me to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel-in-progress (again):

A good first chapter is just a short story with a twist.

To some extent, I think every chapter is like that. (On Twitter the other day, some people were commenting on how to decide where to put chapter breaks, and one theory was that each chapter should be a little semi-self-contained story.) But the first chapter, in particular, isn’t weighted down with the rest of the plot of the book yet, and needs to tell its own story. Ideally, I think it works like this: your first chapter is a mini-story, with a beginning, middle, and sort-of end, which also mentions some things to set up the world of the rest of the book. Then at the end of the chapter, instead of the ending of a story, you get a twist that sets up the rest of the story and propels it forward.

Here’s how this works in On a Pale Horse. The chapter opens with a man looking to buy enchanted stones. He tests a Deathstone, which says he’ll die that day, but rejects it. He tests a Lovestone, which says he’ll find love within the hour. He rejects it. The owner offers a Wealthstone, which finds loose money. The man is destitute, so the shop owner offers to give him the Wealthstone if he will take the Lovestone and lead the owner to the woman he’s meant to find.

On his way home, being followed by the shop owner, the man sees the woman and the Lovestone lights up. The owner swoops in and saves the woman’s life, so she’ll fall in love with him instead. The man takes the Wealthstone he has earned home. There, he discovers that it mostly finds loose change, and that there’s no way it will ever make him rich.

Penniless, starving, and furious about his bad bargain (because he lost the chance to have love with the woman he found who was also a rich heiress), the man decides to kill himself. As he raises the gun to his head, Death comes in the door for him: and he shoots Death instead.

I love the structure of this chapter. It has a story which is almost like a folktale in its simplicity. The man makes a choice, sees its consequences, and realizes it was a bad choice. But instead of ending the story there, he accidentally kills Death in the last sentence of the chapter, so he has to become the next Death. (And the rest of the book is about his adventures as Death.)

Here’s another great first chapter, for a new YA book that comes out in January, Across the Universe by Beth Revis. I’ll let it speak for itself, but it’s another great example of a short story, with its own conflict, with a twist at the end that propels you further into the book. [ETA: No link since the book’s been out most of a year, but it’s definitely worth a read!]

Hello, world! Long time no post. In my defense…no, never mind. I don’t have a defense. Busy-ness is not a defense.

But I have been up to various things. Like:

1. I played the organ three services last Sunday, and will play again this Sunday. Funniest moment last Sunday: when I lost my balance and fell onto the pedals in the middle of a hymn. Most satisfying part: I was able to take a prelude on Beautiful Savior and twist it into a hymn introduction. My (very, very minor) improvisations are fun.

2. Last night I made a list of writing projects I’m working on (very, very slowly). I don’t seem to have much focus, so right now it’s: revisions to Elves in Space, mostly working on characterization and voice–I’m 20,000 words into it, retyping/rewriting from scratch as I go along; 2 new fantasy projects (I’m 4000 words into one big epic and 6000 words into a new first-person fantasy); a mystery (4000 words in)–that one’s probably just for fun but the title popped into my head and demanded to be written; and brainstorming for a sci-fi space opera. I also wrote another short story (so I’ve written two now! This is very exciting for an avowed non-short writer like me, but that’s probably another post).

3. Our zucchini plant is producing zucchini like mad. Turns out zucchini grow very fast! We’ve also got potatoes, and we’re starting to get tomatoes and peppers, so it’s all very exciting. It is undoubtedly cool to suddenly realize your food really comes from the ground and you can grow it. It’s just (like writing) a little piece of the power of creation. Also, you read the parable of the wheat and the tares totally differently after spending some time doing organic gardening, which consists largely of weeding! In particular, it seems totally counterintuitive: it’s much easier to get weeds out when they’re small, and then they largely don’t come back, we’ve discovered. But I suppose that’s the point. The kingdom of God is nothing if not counterintuitive. 🙂

4. On theological notes: we bought $120 dollars worth of religion and philosophy books the other day, including two more books of Tillich’s (Theology and Culture and The Shaking of the Foundations). Meanwhile, the copy we ordered of his Systematic Theology arrived, so we’re working through that, slowly. It’s brilliant and breathtaking and incredibly exciting to read and is sparking all kinds of hard questions and discussion and giving us the language to express and defend our beliefs, which can be hard with liberal Christian beliefs in our culture with its false science-religion (skepticism-certainty, atheist-evangelical) dichotomy.

5. One more note, on politics and religion: Fred Clark’s posts are generally prophetic, but these two from yesterday particularly impressed me.

That’s it for me!

Veggie Burgers

Time for a new recipe…

We made these on Saturday (I forgot to take a picture; sorry. Veggie burgers aren’t very photogenic anyway.) They were very tasty, although I’m suggesting modifications in the recipe below that I think will be a little better, and they still didn’t look quite enough like hamburger when grilled…but overall, a success!

1 zucchini, grated

2 carrots, grated (if I were doing this again, I would salt and drain the zucchini and carrot–the batter came out somewhat too wet and took a lot of chickpea flower to thicken)

4-6 cups black beans, cooked

2 eggs (I would revise this to 1, to make them less wet)

chickpea flour (or, if you’re not trying for gluten free, half-chickpea half-regular flour: chickpea flour has a fairly strong flavor)

salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, cumin to taste

Mix zucchini, carrot, and beans; spice and taste. Add egg and mix in chickpea flour until mixture is dry. (This took me about two cups of chickpea flour, but with the revisions above, should take you less.) Form into patties and grill (placing the patties directly on the grill once formed helped them not fall apart).

We grilled on our electric grill, which was probably good, since the patties were slightly too wet so they slid into the indentations between grill-bars a bit. This meant they didn’t come out looking quite as beautiful as I hoped, although the visible black beans and grated vegetables were a cool textural element. Because we used so much chickpea flour, they were slightly bitter, but tasted fine once on buns with toppings and so on.

We served them on whole wheat buns with grilled eggplant, fresh tomato, lettuce from our garden, mustard, and avocado hummus from this cookbook. On the leftovers, we added cheese, which was delicious. And we have more of them frozen for later! The recipe made ten patties.

I’m going to do these again! Happy two-days-after-Fourth-of-July, everyone!

I had Babylon 5 on the brain last night, so I’m going to go on a (minor) rant. One of the things that irritated me most the second time I watched the series was the complete absence of the Minbari worker caste. (Brief review: the mystical Minbari have three castes, Religious, Warrior, and Worker.) Now, in general, the description of the castes is flat and amounts to Warrior-Bad, Religious-Good. But I found it particularly objectionable that 1. even the “good” religious caste treated the Worker Caste badly; and 2. when the Warrior and Religious castes started a civil war, there was no mention of where the Worker Caste fit into it. I secretly like to imagine them starting a Marxist revolution or a general strike while the Religious and Warriors aren’t paying attention.

(I should point out that I partly thought of this because of the excellent handling of labor issues on Battlestar Galactica (Dirty Hands). At this point, one of the single largest political disagreements Josh and I have ever had is about how to handle the situation presented in that episode–basically, the right for providers of essential services to strike–and we still haven’t talked our way to a compromise.)

What the plight of the Minbari workers expresses to me, though, is a misunderstanding of the nature of vocation. Specifically, the separation of the Minbari religious, who as far as I can tell are monks, from the workers, and the utter lack of respect given to work by the Minbari Religious caste. (Which is especially noticeable since, as far as I can tell, the Worker caste holds up the entire Minbari economy, allowing the Religious caste to sit around doing nothing.)

This certainly isn’t monasticism as it’s understood in the Christian tradition. The Rule of St. Benedict, the seminal text describing the rules of a monastic order, has an entire chapter dedicated to the importance and requirement of manual labor. He requires the monks and nuns to do manual labor several hours a day, and adds,

And if the circumstances of the place or their poverty
should require that they themselves
do the work of gathering the harvest,
let them not be discontented;
for then are they truly monastics
when they live by the labor of their hands,
as did our Fathers and the Apostles.
Let all things be done with moderation, however,
for the sake of the faint-hearted.

“They are truly monastics when they live by the labor of their hands.” To St. Benedict is also attributed the phrase “Ora et Labora,” prayer and work, as the motto of monastics (and other Christian mystics). Prayer and work go together, he says. From a mystical perspective, work can be prayer. Work is consecrated and holy.

I can’t help thinking it would be a very good thing if, in some future Babylon 5 spinoff, a St. Benedict clone (or maybe just Brother Theo) went to Minbar to help the Religious and Worker castes work things out.

Our fava beans were stolen.

We planted them back in March, before the last snow. We weren’t sure they’d make it at all. It was too early. It was too cold. The soybeans never came up.

But several fava plants grew, and grew, and grew, and the beans hung heavy on them, first the size of peas, then larger.

We left them on Saturday so they would get a little bigger, a little riper. There were dozens of pods then.

When we went back today, the stalks were empty, stripped or bitten clean. We got six pods off.

I’m secretly still hoping someone else picked the beans, so they wouldn’t go bad, but I’m forced to admit that they probably made dinner for some critter.

Needless to say, this is frustrating. And makes me philosophize.

I’ll start with the practical: favas as metaphor for life, work, and writing. Sometimes the hardest challenge to overcome is when you’re so, so close when it all falls apart. When you (as I have) rewrite an entire book 60,000 words in, or scrap another at 35,000 words when it’s just not working–which I did this spring.

I haven’t been writing much. Partly that’s because I’ve been busy. Partly it’s because dropping a project seriously undermined my confidence. I always promised myself I’d go ahead and finish no matter what. Now that I’ve accepted some problems aren’t salvageable–well, it makes me ask, is it worth it to finish these revisions, or should I work on a new project? Why put lots of effort into something that probably won’t work out?

But growing the favas was valuable and satisfying even if we didn’t get to eat them. That’s a pathetic answer, but the best I can come up with. Small comfort, but there it is.

All right, now more philosophy (and religion. If you’re not interested in reading about faith, feel free to stop now.)

Last night at church we discussed the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23; it’s the reading for July 10 in the Revised Common Lectionary). I’ll leave you to click through the link if you want to read it, but basically it deals with a bunch of situations where the word of God can fail to take root–by (metaphorically) landing on infertile soil, by being eaten by birds, by being choked out by weeds. And Jesus says these correspond to different situations that can keep faith from developing.

But it doesn’t deal with the fava beans. What happens to the word, the faith that roots itself, that grows, that bears fruit in someone’s life, and then is torn away by circumstances that make it impossible to keep faith up?

I think this happens all the time. It can come from tragedy that makes God’s love seem incomprehensible. It can come from learning more, questioning the premises that support your faith, and then being unable to live with the tension of doubt.

And it can come from the actions of those in the church. From theological positions that defy our understanding of morality and mercy (see this post on the problems inherent in defending Hell); from well-intentioned attempts to understand sin in the modern world that have the effect of pushing gays and lesbians out and making them unwelcome.

Now, there’s a place for theological debate. There’s certainly a place for being concerned about being right. But we need to be careful that our need to be right isn’t tearing away others’ carefully-cultivated fava beans.

Because that’s just not cool.

So…it looks like three weeks ago I said I would post once a week.


I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! There’s just been vacation, and lots of work for my dayjob, and trying to keep up with even a little bit of real writing of my own (which is barely happening anyway) and trying to keep the house clean, and working on the garden and…

Did I tell you about the garden? We’re taking part in a community garden. It’s awesome! So we have a plot, and currently we have a lot of peas and fava beans growing successfully. It’s wonderful and mystical, and will hopefully provide lots of food, eventually.

In the meantime…

We saw Thor. Loved it. Stellan Skarsgaard plays physicist really, really well. (And given that my first book was about magical physicists, I feel entitled to say that.)

I’ve been playing with a new idea, as well as promising myself I’ll keep working on the revisions on Elves in Space. Also, wondering a lot where the days go.

And there’s the usual conferences-weddings-guests stuff that always happens in May coming up soon, so my posting may continue to be sparse. But I really hope to get back on a regular posting schedule during the summer.

Thank you all for your patience.

Boy, it’s been a long time since I blogged. I’m sorry! There was Easter, and I was sick, and then there’s been work, and…

Well, you know how it goes. In future I really will try to keep to at least one post a week, although I don’t know if I can come up with more than that. Maybe one post and a recipe post? I feel like I’m running out of interesting things to tell y’all.

But today, a writing/organ post.

So I just gave up on a project on Sunday. Temporarily–maybe. Possibly I’m going to rework it as a short story or novella, rather than trying to make it into a novel. Basically, I was 30,000 words in, running out of plot, and stuck. After the main character was kidnapped twice in three chapters, I decided something had to change.

So I’ve gone back to editing Elves in Space, which is in itself terrifying (trying to get things right, eek!) and after that…the future is open. I’m playing with some new ideas. Most of my big ideas right now will take more planning/worldbuilding than I usually do, so I’m thinking about them already.

Alternately, I might take a break from sci-fi/fantasy completely and try a mystery.

But this was not the point of this post. The point of this post was this:

There’s a time to push through hard books, and there’s a time to give up and write something easier. Work on revisions that seem more manageable. Write a short story (easier, hah.)

Try out beginnings for new projects rather than pushing through to the end. Do anything, just to keep the words flowing.

I realized this Monday while practicing the organ (yay, organ parallels!):

I have a new book of organ music that’s easy. Easy and fairly satisfying, so I’ve learned several pieces from it, and they’re fun to work on.

Of course that’s not enough. It doesn’t push me, so I’m trying to force myself to work on some Bach as well. But sometimes, it’s just satisfying to get things done, learn music so you have it in your back pocket, play with ideas even if you don’t know what you’re going to do with them, start five projects at once: refresh yourself to go back to doing the hard work of learning fugues (I mean, finishing novels).

Do you take breaks? Do you feel guilty about it?